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IBM takes aim at Microsoft

Big Blue pledges to incorporate its WebSphere software package to connect a variety of clients to various back-end systems.

SAN FRANCISCO--Big Blue's software message is becoming deceptively simple: Whatever you got, we'll make it work.

IBM could be accused of setting up a computing era where countless systems running various types of software create massive headaches for customers trying to run their businesses. But executives at the veteran computing monolith insist that their variety of software and services can provide the answers to businesses' computing troubles.

In the latest twist on this theme, Big Blue pledged today to incorporate its WebSphere software package to connect a variety of clients to various back-end systems with all copies of a new suite of server-based software, currently available for Microsoft's Windows NT and forthcoming for IBM's own OS/2 and AIX flavor of Unix.

The move represents IBM's latest bid to snatch business away from Microsoft and its own BackOffice suite of server-side applications for businesses. Both companies have wrapped a database, email and groupware, systems management, and transaction tools--among other features--into a prepackaged bundle. The addition of the WebSphere technology will allow users of the suite to take advantage of a mid-tier connection server, essentially tying a variety of clients to back-end host systems.

IBM executives believe their message of integration can will over those predisposed toward Microsoft products due to the ever-growing use of NT. "[Microsoft] tends to take much more of a 'rip and replace' strategy," said Jonathan Prial, director of NT solutions marketing for IBM. "The biggest challenge they face is integrating into a heterogeneous world."

The company also announced the availability of the WebSphere Studio 1.0 package of development tools and an update to the WebSphere Application Server. The next version of the NT-based suites is scheduled to enter a testing phase by the end of this year, according to IBM executives, with versions for the company's own operating systems scheduled to roll out early next year as well.

The WebSphere product line, first discussed earlier this summer and complemented by new Web server software from the Apache Project, builds on the announcement of NT-based software suites from IBM in May.

One technology services company, Software Spectrum, has found that even as its NT-based business continues to boom, users remain committed to older systems, such as IBM's AS/400 or mainframes. The firm sees both large organizations and smaller operations interested in the concept of a software suite of business-oriented tools, according to Mark Milam, a consulting services manager with Software Spectrum.

During a keynote at the Comdex Enterprise trade show here, Steve Mills, general manager of IBM's software solutions, stressed the need to incorporate new software so that older systems can play a role in the Web era. "Things have to fit into today's environment," he said.

The tone of IBM's words here feeds into the notion, often expressed by Microsoft's chairman and chief executive Bill Gates, that Big Blue remains its largest competitor for business software, especially as Microsoft continues to build momentum in server-side applications. "Their model is one of homogeneity," claimed Prial in a direct stab at Microsoft's Windows focus. "We just have a different story."

Microsoft executives, in response, shrugged off the notion that their system software caters to a Windows-only world, noting services that tie the company's server software to systems from IBM. Pat Fox, group product manager for BackOffice, said Microsoft's focus on interoperability is due in part to sales momentum for the software.

"I think it is somewhat indicative of the larger role our enterprise software is playing [within corporations]," he said.