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Steps Forward For Server-Based Apps

IBM's announcement that it would offer desktop applications server side isn't a new concept.

Sun Microsystems has offered a similar product for three years. Both are trying to chip away at the dominance Microsoft and its desktop Office suite enjoys in the workplace.

But analysts say enterprise infrastructure has evolved to a point that enables more sophisticated applications to be served up, on demand, with information shared from client to client.

Mike Gotta, an analyst with the META Group, said the enterprise has been moving away from the desktop since the late 90s, with the advent of integration-minded server technologies.

"Now that we have XML , now that we have Web services, portals and services-oriented architecture coming down the pipe, why don't we re-visit the end user platform and see what we can do differently now?" he said. "The good news is that IBM is making a statement about the value of the end-user platform."

IBM and Sun take the same approach -- build server-residing shells and put applications inside them that can be accessed by any kind of device, be it a workstation PC, PDA or laptop. Whether the end user is working in a cubicle or killing time at the airport, all their data resides on the corporate network, not inside a desktop PC (read: no more having to synchronize your PDA before leaving the office).

"Essentially, what you have is a shell for housing applications," said Red Monk analyst Stephen O'Grady. "For Joe office worker, I can open one application and have all my applications I need in one place.

"This is the goal portals have been aiming for for some time," he added. "But you can also do it with rich clients, so I get rich client functionality in a user experience similar to a portal."

The potential cost-savings are huge. Software updates and patches are done at one location, the server, instead of relying on individuals to upgrade when they have the time. Software costs are also reduced when end users don't have to buy a license for applications they never use.

"Companies have less money to spend," said Kathy Quirk of Nucleus Research. There is certainly less buying, and it is weighed and measured against business benefits, she added. "When you buy something, you have to deliver benefits and delivery quickly."

For Sun, server-based applications run off Sun Ray, Sun's ultra-thin client environment. IBM is using its Workplace Client Technology. The first Workplace applications, Messaging and Documents, will be released in the coming weeks. Sun has been running its StarOffice productivity applications through Sun Ray.

The knock against the technology, however, is its reduced functionality and performance hiccups on the presentation layer that can result from using productivity tools that reside on a server.

"There are all kinds of people using thin clients and are unhappy with the limited functionality," said Mark Stahlman, an analyst at Wall Street investment firm Caris & Company.

According to Stahlman, the market for the technology is going to get much bigger in the coming years, especially in the Asian markets.

"The Asian market's rapid increase in penetration is an obvious piece, but much more broadly, the demand for next-generation technology has dramatically increased in the last year," he said. "IBM and Sun have both been in front of this; they got to the parade sooner. Microsoft and Intel have told us over the course of the last week that they want to get back to the front of the parade."

Now that the framework is in place to deliver server-based applications, the next step is to get third-party software developers to sign on to the program and make applications that can plug into the platform.

"Remember, all these vendors -- PeopleSoft, SAP -- were moving away from the desktop to a pure Internet architecture," Gotta said. "It's a chicken-egg [situation] -- if they jump back in and the operational management really isn't there, then [it's a] disaster. IBM needs real demonstrable proof that they can lower total cost of ownership and provide a better desktop end-user platform operational management solution."

Ron Miller contributed to this story