Some Thoughts on IBM Verse

I returned this week from ConnectED, IBM’s annual conference in Orlando, formerly named Lotusphere. A key emphasis of the conference was IBM Verse, the company’s new business email platform that is designed to go head-to-head with Office 365, Gmail and Amazon’s upcoming WorkMail, among other platforms.

Verse represents a paradigm shift in email. Where Outlook represented a major shift in the way people work with email by integrating calendar, scheduling and task management functions into a single interface, I believe Verse represents the same level of paradigm shift because of its integration with the social aspects of email. Even though a substantial proportion of business email today is application-to-person (newsletters, travel reservations, notifications, etc.), for most business users the primary reason they use email is to send information to other people, to collaborate with them, and to manage projects with employees and others – a concept that Verse’s designers had as their central focus. Verse has a very social feel to it, prominently displaying the individuals with whom you’re communicating and collaborating most often, and making suggestions about who you might want to add to your “A” list across the top of the interface.

Verse makes extensive use of Watson-based analytics to adapt to individual work and collaboration styles and provides useful information about incoming email, users, projects, etc. Watson has the potential to make Verse extraordinarily useful because of its ability to prioritize messages based on a wide variety of parameters and its “knowledge” about senders, content and the like. Verse makes extensive use of social technologies to provide information about others in an organization and your relationship to them, similar to the old Atlas for Lotus Connections. Plus, chat in Verse is powered by Sametime, IBM’s well-established, real-time communication technology.

IBM will be offering an on-premises version of Verse in the second quarter of 2015, but this likely will not include a thick client – Verse is likely to remain a browser-only offering until at least 2016. I’m unconvinced that not offering a Verse thick client is a good idea.

In a significant shift from IBM’s standard delivery model, Verse will be a freemium offering that will include an “ibmverse.com” address and a decent amount of storage. Watson’s capabilities will not be available in the freemium version, but will be in the paid version. IBM will offer the ability to import contact information so that social relationships can be identified and established.

The market for Verse will be varied. Obviously, IBM will be going after its current base of Notes/Domino users, since these companies already have a strong relationship with the IBM brand and represent a logical migration path for existing Notes users. The more difficult avenue for IBM will be Gmail users, a group of at least 500 million, many millions of whom are business users, that represents an enormous potential market for Verse, but one more difficult to crack. However, IBM is smart to go after this group because Verse provides a more elegant, useful and intuitive interface than Gmail; and the addition of Watson analytics and social interaction extend its utility further still.

Will Verse be able to penetrate the Office 365 market? Microsoft currently has more than 9.2 million Office 365 Home and Personal subscribers and in excess of 30 million total users. This is going to be a more difficult market for IBM to penetrate given that Microsoft has done a good job at providing robust functionality in their cloud offering, the fact that they own the desktop for productivity applications, and that email with a large mailbox is already included in the offering.

There are other markets IBM could go after, as well, such as the several million remaining GroupWise users that will be migrating to other platforms; and the tens of millions of Zimbra users.

So, what’s the future of Verse going to look like? I believe Verse could very definitely be a game-changer, albeit with a few “ifs”:

  • If IBM’s marketing can be streamlined to make information and pricing on Verse easily accessible to Gmail and similar types of users. IBM offers excellent technology as exemplified in Verse, but its marketing operation is currently too bureaucratic – the company has become very innovative in its design approach and needs to do the same thing for its marketing.
  • If IBM provides straightforward email migration services that allow existing mailboxes from just about any platform to be easily migrated into Verse.
  • If IBM educates the market sufficiently to help prospective users and decision makers understand the significant benefits from the integration of social, email and real-time communication into a single platform.
  • If IBM can convince business and IT decision makers that making life easier and more productive for their end users is in their best interest (it is, by the way).

The bottom line: Verse is a fantastic, game-changing platform that could significantly alter the business email market if it’s marketed correctly.

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