IBM's WebSphere Makeover: More than a Rebranding

The application server market has been in a state of flux, with major vendors moving to integrate more e-commerce features into their offerings. In May, IBM Corp. ( unveiled a revamped version of its Web application server platform, dubbed WebSphere Commerce Suite, Marketplace Edition. In late June, Big Blue debuted another round of new WebSphere releases and announced it was contributing an additional $1 billion into its core applications server platform.

IBM's latest moves highlight the strategic importance that WebSphere has come to assume with regard to its Internet commerce agenda, but they also provide a glimpse into Big Blue's overall operating system platform replacement strategy.

IBM's newly christened WebSphere Commerce Suite, Marketplace Edition, is part of an ongoing effort to build bridges from many of its core application platforms to the wireless and Internet appliance spaces. The solution builds in components from Net.Commerce, IBM's original commerce server toolkit. Prior to this announcement, IBM took the wraps off of its WebSphere Transcoding Publisher, which is middleware that dynamically translates Web information into formats readable by a variety of wireless and embedded Internet devices.

IBM has good reason to reach out to the wireless and embedded Internet appliance markets. Analysts predict these markets are poised for explosive growth. GartnerGroup Inc. (, projects that 70 percent of new cellular phones and 80 percent of personal digital assistants (PDAs) will have Internet access capabilities by 2004. WebSphere Commerce Suite, Marketplace Edition, could open up the world of the online business-to-business e-marketplace to all of these embedded devices.

"This new wave [of e-marketplaces] has the potential to fully leverage the Internet's inherent potential for creating truly dynamic, interactive communities and marketplaces that are exchanging business critical information -- from virtually any device," says Ed Kilroy, general manager of electronic commerce software at IBM.

In its late June announcement, IBM acknowledged that it planned to make an additional $1 billion investment in WebSphere, indicating at the time that the bulk of the cash influx would be earmarked for hiring costs, product development initiatives, and marketing campaigns to promote the use of WebSphere as a foundation for e-business. IBM also unveiled version 3.5 releases of the standard, advanced, and enterprise editions of its WebSphere Application Server product.

But IBM's WebSphere maneuvers haven't been strictly Internet commerce- or e-business-related. According to Rob Enderle, senior analyst at Giga Information Group Inc. (, the release of WebSphere Application Server 3.5 -- which features greatly enhanced reliability, availability, and scalability features -- has the makings of a client/server platform replacement strategy. "They've really got it to the point where they can position it as a platform replacement for Windows, and certainly OS/2, on the desktop," Enderle relates.

IBM's proposed OS/2 migration strategy -- unveiled in early May -- heavily leverages WebSphere as the backroom centerpiece of the company's "application framework for e-business." Because the application framework for e-business calls for Java-based applications on the client side, IBM can effectively supplant one platform -- OS/2 -- with another -- WebSphere -- and retain key enterprise customers.

IBM also points out that the application framework for e-business will also benefit customers by allowing them to continue to run on OS/2 or transition to other platforms -- including Windows 2000 Professional -- with little difficulty. "Platform independence can be achieved by building applications using e-business technologies," explains Dave Fritz, manager product line planning with IBM's e-business operating system solutions. "By using Java applications and Servlets, the browser becomes the platform. In that way, customers can achieve platform independence for their applications."

But some industry watchers -- IDC ( among them -- warn that IBM's use of WebSphere as the underpinning of a platform replacement strategy constitutes a potential software lock-in as strong as the choice underlying operating system. IBM hopes that its WebSphere client/server replacement strategy will let it maintain key presences -- in the mainframe, database, and services spaces -- in most enterprise accounts, says Dan Kusnetzky, director of worldwide operating environments with IDC. "IBM looks at the big picture, they don't mind losing the desktop or a small server as long as they keep the mainframe, they keep the database, and they keep their services," he explains.