Some Thoughts on IBM Verse

There are three ways to view yesterday’s announcement from IBM about Verse (née Mail Next):

  1. IBM is simply too late: Microsoft has the business email market sewn up with Exchange and Office 365 and is advancing on all fronts in the context of social, content management and cloud.
  2. IBM is making a big push into email at a time when email is passé and we’re all moving on to newer and better ways of communicating.
  3. IBM is smart enough to know that email use is actually growing, but email users need a new paradigm, such as melding email with social and analytics that will make the email experience more effective and efficient.

I’m in the last camp. Our research shows that email use is growing and that it’s actually a more important communication medium for information workers today than it was just a year ago. Our research shows that email is the primary tool that individuals use to do their work, accounting for about 160 minutes of time spent during a typical workday. Email has become the de facto file transport system for most users, their contact manager, their task manager, and – in many cases – their personal archive. Finally, our research  shows that email is still the most important single application in the new paradigm of mobility.

Given all of that, I firmly believe that email is here to stay, but it does need a bit of a kick in its paradigm. What IBM brings to the table are a couple of important things:

  • First, Verse represents a new design for email that, at first and second glance, looks as though it contains some elements borrowed from the iOS design team. That may or may not be a coincidence given IBM and Apple recent cozying up to one another.
  • Second, Verse carries with it the promise of a significant focus on enterprise social networking and analytics in an email context that can make the email experience more efficient and that can make users more productive. The new paradigm will be particularly important for mobile workers and those that work on distributed teams – one of the raisons d’etre for enterprise social networking.

Will IBM Verse be successful? That’s hard to say at this point because IBM faces a few headwinds in the email space:

  • Microsoft is continuing to push hard with Office 365 (albeit not with on-premises Exchange). The company has a very solid lead in the business-grade email and cloud markets, they’re the “comfortable” choice for decision makers, and they have solid offerings in social, content management, file sync and share, server and other key markets that fill out the Microsoft ecosystem quite nicely.
  • Outlook is the dominant email client in every business market (small business, mid-market and enterprise). That’s important, since lots of business decision makers still think their corporate email system is “Outlook” even though it’s really Exchange.
  • Microsoft’s marketing engine has more horsepower. That’s not a ding against IBM’s marketing prowess, but Microsoft marketing gets in front of people more effectively.
  • Email is deeply entrenched in virtually every organization. Convincing decision makers to implement a new email system that will benefit primarily users will not be easy.

Personally, I’m looking forward to using Verse as soon as possible. I’d prefer that IBM offer a thick client for Verse (yes, I’m one of those old school dinosaurs that prefers thick clients to the browser experience), but I don’t believe that’s in the offing, at least in the near term.

The bottom line: I think Verse has a decent chance of being quite successful if IBM can appropriately educate a large part of the market that email must be – and can be – more efficient and effective.

How Have Email and Instant Messaging Use Changed Since 2001?

Osterman Research has been in business nearly 14 years and has tracked the growth and changes in the use of email, instant messaging and other communication tools since our inception. We have focused continually on how individuals and organizations communicate and collaborate using these tools, and how they plan to do so in the future.

Not surprisingly, current Osterman Research surveys have found that email is the dominant communications and collaboration tool in most organizations, and that it serves as the primary method for transporting files – in fact, 98% of the bits that flow through the typical email system are the files that are attached to emails. Our research reveals that the typical information worker currently spends 167 minutes per business day doing work in their email client or Webmail system, such as sending or receiving email, looking for attachments, managing tasks, searching for contacts, and the like. The typical information worker receives 100 emails on a normal workday and sends 30. Moreover, users currently spend about 30 minutes per day working in an instant messaging system, whether a standalone instant messaging solution or one that is integrated with a collaboration platform.

Bucking the conventional wisdom, numerous Osterman Research surveys that email is actually becoming more important to users over time – both in the sheer volume of content sent and received through email, and also in the use of email as the starting point for many of the tasks that information workers undertake during the normal course of their workday.

So, how have things changed for email and instant messaging use since 2001? In some ways things have changed dramatically. For example:

  • An Osterman Research survey conducted in December 2001 found that the average employee sent and received a total of just under 16 Internet-based emails on a typical workday. Compared to today’s traffic volume that averages 130 emails sent and received per day, the result has been a dramatic increase in message volume of roughly 730% over the past 13 years. Given that email systems today include much more functionality and integration with other capabilities than they did in 2001, the amount of time spent in email has risen at even faster pace.
  • While instant messaging is almost universally accepted as a business communications medium today, that was not the case in 2001. For example, a July 2001 Osterman Research survey found that only 21% of organizations were using any form of instant messaging, only 23% of email users employed it, and only 22% of IT organizations supported its use in a workplace context.

In some ways, however, things have not changed all that much:

  • Microsoft Exchange was the market leader in business-grade email in an October 2001 Osterman Research survey, followed by Lotus Notes/Domino – much the same as the market shakes out today – albeit with a smattering 13 years ago of tools like Lotus cc:Mail and Microsoft Mail still accounting for some market share.
  • While Lotus Sametime was the dominant enterprise-grade instant messaging system in mid-2001, the dominant instant messaging systems in use were consumer-grade tools (AOL Instant Messenger, Microsoft MSN Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger were the “big three” in 2001).

What we have seen in email and instant messaging use since 2001 has been a steady progression in the volume of emails that users send, an increased reliance on the use of email for both communications and file transport, and growing use of instant messaging. Despite the view by some that email and instant messaging use in the workplace will diminish as social media solutions replace them, as well as the notion that younger workers consider email and instant messaging passé, Osterman Research forecasts that email and instant messaging will remain critical tools in a business context for many years to come.