If choices define openness, Windows NT Server may soon be the preferred "open" application server platform. IBM, Oracle, and Netscape are all creating NT rivals for taking over back-office functions--messaging, systems management, host connectivity, database, Web servers, and more. This rivalry is great for NT and its users because Microsoft delivers its best products when it feels threatened.

IBM recently introduced seven software servers (a.k.a. Eagle): Lotus Notes, DB2/NT, Internet Connection Server (ICS), Transaction Server (CICS, Encina), Systems Management Server (System View and Tivoli), Communications Server (SNA connectivity), and Directory/Security Server. The application servers will run on OS/2, AIX, and NT, which IBM believes is a competitive advantage over Microsoft's BackOffice, which runs only on NT. Notes, DB2, and ICS work on NT now, and the rest will by the end of 1996.

Oracle's InterOffice for NT includes messaging, calendar/scheduling, directory services, document management, workflow, and database. This combined offering is going after the groupware market that products such as Lotus Notes originally defined. Oracle's Web Server and strategic partnerships with Computer Associates (CA-Unicenter) for systems management mean Oracle lacks only the host connectivity component. If Oracle can build momentum in the NT market, its success in the database market can help the company catch up with the other players.

Netscape continues to make strategic alliances and develop products to compete for the back office. Its current product offerings include messaging, Web servers with Informix's database server, and other products that compete in the groupware market. Netscape is focusing on the hottest segment of the application server market--the I-net (Internet and intranets). However, the company lacks host connectivity, systems management, and a standalone database management system (DBMS). So, on the one hand, while Netscape's giving Microsoft some competition on the I-net, it won't replace all of BackOffice any time soon. On the other hand, Netscape thinks that SNA Server is irrelevant and SMS is a second-rate product, so Netscape believes it's focusing on the real back office.

Does corporate IT really buy the whole BackOffice suite? Most IT shops see BackOffice as a strategic direction from Microsoft and buy individual components. At the same time, many ISVs are standardizing on the entire suite because they can build on Microsoft's foundation and emphasize the unique part of their solution. Will BackOffice achieve the success of Microsoft Office, which claims the majority of the office automation market? That's Microsoft's hope, and it's why other vendors must hedge their bets with application server suites on NT.

If you define openness as the number of server OSs your software supports, Microsoft BackOffice is doomed. I believe openness means choices, interoperability, and lots of competition. With these major companies competing for our NT business, we all win.