20141119terse

IBM Verse – Email Reimagined

It’s hard to separate fact from fiction on a day like today. Something deeply real from merely smoke and mirrors. Of course I’m talking about the news and announcement from IBM around Mail Next, the code name for what has become IBM Verse. You can see the news and announcement directly from IBM, and find a whole lot of link love from others. I’m not going to go there.

I was pre-briefed on Mail Next last week, and was actually even in the crowd at IBM Connect in January this year when Mail Next was announced. Given what I know about it, with my analyst hat on, it is perfectly reasonable to give the following official line (which I did give to IBM yesterday when they asked for a quote):

Email remains a critical communication channel for organizations, and has an ongoing role to play alongside new communication and collaboration tools. It is good to see IBM’s commitment to re-think how email can be used productively, and I commend IBM for being willing to take a fresh look at what email is and what it can become in the future. I look forward to seeing Mail Next begin to play in the market.

Of course, there are many other equally valid things that could be said too. But that comes back to being able to separate fact from fiction. In my view, fact is what “we” (the world outside IBM) gets when IBM Verse is available to try out. Fact is how it performs under lab, test, and real world situations outside of IBM – day in, day out. We don’t have any of that yet, and it seems like many IBM’ers don’t have that either; they have known it is coming, but as one IBM’er commented on Facebook (paraphrased), “it was developed very differently to how Connections was developed; we were very involved with Connections.”

Fiction, then, is stuff that could be true about IBM Verse … or it could be made up. The groundswell of support among IBM’ers who haven’t even tried IBM Verse yet – is that fact or fiction? Are they toeing the company line and parroting what they’ve been told to say? When an IBM’er spells Verse incorrectly on their blog, it is hard for me to say it comes from deep knowledge.

Fiction, then, would also be grandiose promises of how a new email system will bring in a “new way of working.” Seriously, folks, the push behind “new ways of working” is all about getting out of email – leaving behind a technology approach that has some ongoing value, but whose value is progressively getting taken over by – and in my view should get taken over by – actual new approaches. Tools like IBM Connections from IBM, or Yammer and SharePoint from Microsoft, or Slack, or … many others. These are the new battleground, the new place where individual, team, and organizational productivity will play out. Not email.

Possible fiction (or fact), would be the real world usefulness of the pretty interface in IBM Verse; the dashboard view of what is owed and what is coming up. It looks pretty, sure, and I commend IBM for making something so eye candy’ish. But … if you are getting 50-200 emails per day, how useful will this be for moment-by-moment processing? Will the prettiness help with communicating, or become irrelevant pixel candy?

Possible fact (or fiction), relies on the effectiveness of cognitive capabilities that analyze what’s going on in your email and tell you / highlight the important from the unimportant. The critical from the noise. If it works – and given the billions of dollars IBM has spent on buying analytics tools in recent years – it could be incredible. And if it is incredible, it’s going to become a new battlefield for lock in; email won’t be open anymore with IMAP and POP3 (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing), but if your email system knows a huge amount about you – your new and improved Personal Assistant even – then it will be very hard to give it up and start again with a competitor’s product. IBM Verse could allow IBM to win the email battle again, even though pretty much everyone else is now fighting elsewhere.

Another big question I have is whether IBM’s financial engineering of recent years, last month’s “signature moment” with its CEO saying the goal for 2015 has been abandoned (couldn’t analytics have told them that earlier?), and the hollowing out of talent over many years at the historically great IBM will create such a negative marketplace context for IBM Verse that no one will want to sing from the song sheet. The product may be great / wonderful / truly groundbreaking … but because it comes from IBM, will it be shunned? I can’t foresee a wholesale migration in the Microsoft customer ecosystem to IBM Verse, especially given the revitalized Microsoft of the past 6 months. So what percentage of current Notes / Domino shops will transition (especially when you have a proven / market leading email system immediately available from Microsoft versus the brand new and potentially groundbreaking Verse; one with huge channel support and one … without)? And how much net new business will IBM get from outside the installed base of Notes / Domino? Much has been promised on this front, but until the purchase orders start flowing and market share numbers are tallied, we just won’t know.

So all in all, driving to a sound bite conclusion where a sound bite conclusion tremendously masks the complexity … (a) good work IBM – bring it on, and (b) I suspend judgment of the market efficacy of this until it’s out.

2 thoughts on “IBM Verse – Email Reimagined

  1. Hi Michael –
    Interesting that your own blog entry on this is called “terse” not “verse”🙂

    I think you’ve done a nice job of trying to parse out where IBM Verse stands and what the opportunities and challenges are in the market. I don’t own this and wasn’t the blogger who misspelled Verse (as far as I can tell)… not necessarily apologizing for it, but most IBMers didn’t find out the official name until yesterday, myself included. You might have heard two execs start to say the codename on the live stream. That we were able to keep it secret yet shift to the real name the day of launch was pretty impressive to me. The comment I also saw from a colleague about who was/is involved in building Verse and how it’s different…again, true, we do not have wide deployment internally yet. Connections was different because it started with existing tools/concepts (blog/wiki/forum) and we moved to the Connections implementation as those capabilities were built.

    The general theme and tone I took away from yesterday (and I’m not in NY, on another continent) is the organizational commitment and investment in getting this right. These announcements – Verse, Apple partnership, Twitter partnership, Watson Analytics, Bluemix – they are what defines what IBM will be going forward. If anyone wondered if IBM was still serious about email as it pertains to collaboration – yes. If anyone wondered whether IBM would ever innovate in this space again to the levels seen in the past – yes. It remains to be proven how IBM Verse, or other technologies, change email going forward. But Bob Picciano said it right, in my 20+ years of experience in this area – “email is still the center of our work universe, begging for disruption”. Here we go🙂

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