IBM Workplace is more than just an alternative to Microsoft Office

Hot skills: Collaborative working suite builds on open standards

Hot skills: Collaborative working suite builds on open standards

What is it?

Lotus Workplace is a set of customisable online work collaboration products from IBM's Lotus division. The products consist of Workplace Messaging, Workplace Team Collaboration, Workplace Collaborative Learning, and Workplace Web Content Management.

When rumours of Workplace first surfaced about three years ago, it was described as an "MS Office-killer". It has subsequently become clear that there is a lot more to it than that.

Microsoft Office users can, if they wish, continue with Office, while making use of the kind of collaboration features IBM has long had with Lotus Domino and Websphere, and which Microsoft is only now beginning to pack into Office. On the other hand, there is a migration path to Openoffice.

Although IBM stresses the openness of its offerings, Workplace is essentially a repackaging of core IBM technologies.

IBM describes Workplace as "a family of products and technologies for creating adaptive, unified, secure work environments that can be customised based on users' unique roles and/or skill levels in the organisation".

It is based on open standards, building on the J2EE platform, the Eclipse development environment, and the Oasis Open Document format, which Microsoft is challenging with OpenXML.

Where did it originate?

Lotus Notes, the foundation of IBM's collaboration software, appeared in 1989, and was acquired by IBM in 1995. Websphere Application Server was released in 1998, and in 2001, IBM announced that Websphere was to be its strategic integration platform.

What is it for?

The Workplace family includes Collaboration Services, an integrated set of e-mail, calendaring and scheduling, web conference and document management tools.

The Workplace Managed Client provides access to the Collaboration Services, and includes an Openoffice-based suite of productivity applications, including word processing, spreadsheet, presentation and project management. Documents can be saved in Microsoft Office format, or Microsoft Office documents can be reopened as Openoffice. The browser is used to create users' own desktops, providing access to Workplace applications.

What makes it special?

On the plus side, IBM has pulled together a lot of its own tried and tested technology with the best of open standards and open source. On the minus side, Workplace is a big, amorphous concept, rather like Websphere, which IBM itself seems unable to provide a concise overview of.

Some old products have appeared under new names, which is confusing, and Domino users and developers may feel they have been marginalised at first.

Better bridges are being built with Domino and other IBM technologies. The complexity should be hidden from users, most of whom will welcome the opportunity to customise and de-clutter their desktops. Users can also create their own Workplace applications using XML-based templates.

How difficult is it to master?

A background in Lotus Notes or Domino and Websphere would obviously be an advantage. Failing that, IBM says key development skills are J2EE and the Eclipse integrated development environment.

What systems does it run on?

Workplace is intended to be platform-independent. Key operating systems are Linux and Windows.

What is coming up?

The latest releases of Collaboration Services and Managed Client include improvements to document management and web conferencing, better integration with Lotus Notes and Domino 7.0, and clustering support for IBM's mid-range iSeries servers.

Rates of pay

Many skills are involved in Workplace. Developers with J2EE,Websphere and Eclipse can expect to earn £25,000 to £40,000, depending on seniority.


IBM's Developerworks site is the best place to start when looking for Workplace training, providing free guidance on how existing skills can be applied and what new skills will be needed.

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