Microsoft vs. Google vs. IBM

While there are a large number of cloud-based communication and collaboration solutions available, the “Big Three” in cloud-based communication and collaboration today are Microsoft Office 365, Google G Suite and IBM Connections Cloud (which includes a very good email solution called IBM Verse). I won’t go into what you get with each offering, but you can check out the various components, features and capabilities at the following links for Office 365, G Suite and Connections Cloud.

All of these offerings include robust email, instant messaging, document collaboration, file sharing and other tools, as well as lots of storage. All of these solutions are reasonably priced, although Microsoft’s high end plans are significantly more expensive than the other two (but they also include more capabilities). Microsoft’s solutions require the least disruption to the way that most information workers work, since the vast majority already use the Office suite of Word, Excel and PowerPoint; and Office 365, from a desktop productivity standpoint, is nothing more than a switch from purchasing a perpetual license for these applications to renting them in perpetuity.

From a long-term perspective, however, particularly for enterprise customers, IBM’s solution should be the subject of most decision makers’ serious consideration because of Watson Workspace. Watson, the “computer” that trounced Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter on Jeopardy back in 2011, uses cognitive capabilities to analyze social interactions among information workers. Watson is currently being used for cancer research, tax analysis and other data-intensive applications, but Watson Workspace is specifically focused on using these cognitive capabilities in the workplace. The goal of Watson Workspace is to help workers manage information overload, present the right data at the right time, and otherwise streamline work processes with the goal of making people more efficient. Microsoft and Google have analytics and other capabilities that are focused on similar aims, but neither of these vendors have capabilities that compares to Watson at this point. In short, Watson has the potential to revolutionize the way that people work with one another.

The problem for IBM, however, is two-fold:

  • First, IBM is generally more bureaucratic than either of their key competitors and has a more difficult time moving products from the conceptual stage into stuff that people can actually deploy.
  • Second, Microsoft and Google make it easy to buy Office 365 and G Suite, respectively. IBM does not.

As a test of the latter point, I had one of our researchers run a test to see how long it would take to set up an account in Office 365, G Suite and IBM Verse. She started on a weekday afternoon and found that it took six minutes to complete setting up an Office 365 account, four minutes to set up an account in G Suite — and 31 minutes to set up an account in Verse.

Now admittedly, IBM is not really focused on the single user market to nearly the same extent as Microsoft and Google. But the difficulty and length of time associated with setting up an account are indicative of IBM’s need to make its account acquisition process a bit easier and more transparent. This one-off market can result in the deployment of perhaps a few million seats, a market that just about any communications and collaboration vendor should pursue for its own sake, but also for the potential impact it could have on making these tools more familiar in the enterprise space.

In short, IBM’s communication and collaboration solutions are the best of the Big Three, but also the most difficult to acquire.

Some Thoughts on IBM Connect

This was my tenth IBM Lotusphere/ConnectED/Connect and, arguably, one of the best. A somewhat new focus, a new venue and a substantial number of people (2,400?) made for a very good event. The expo floor continues to shrink each year, but was still fairly busy most of the times I was there or passed by. Plus, holding the event in a new venue helps to minimize comparisons with past events that had 10,000 or more attendees.

IBM is pushing hard on its social message, integrating social collaboration across every aspect of its offerings: Notes, Domino, Verse, Connections, et al. Even more pronounced was the “cognitive” message – namely applying Watson technology to just about every aspect of the user experience, from identifying those emails that users need to address first to simplifying the calendar experience.

What was interesting is that the keynotes stressed capabilities – communicating more effectively, setting up meetings, and having better access to files – not product names. For example, while I would have expected Verse to take center stage as the hub of the user experience, the name “Verse” was surprisingly underemphasized (at least in the keynotes, although not so much in the breakout sessions). Apparently, according to the IBMers with whom I spoke about this, it was by design. IBM wants to emphasize what people can do, not the tools they use to do it. For example, the company emphasized its dashboard that is automatically populated for each user with content from Verse, Connections and other tools depending on how people work, but minimizes the identity of the specific platforms that host this information.

While I understand the capabilities-not-products approach, I’m not sure the market will agree. Microsoft’s success in the business communication space is attributable, in part, to the fact that it pushes hard on product identity: Exchange, Outlook, Office 365, Yammer and, more recently, Skype for Business. For example, there are many non-IT decision makers that tell IT they want “Outlook” as their corporate email system (when they really mean Exchange), not “the ability to manage email, calendars and tasks from a single thick or thin client interface”. I could be wrong and IBM’s research may indicate that people think in terms of capabilities and not products, but I don’t think so.

Moreover, when comparing Verse to Exchange Online or Gmail, Verse wins hands down in my opinion. The interface in Verse is cleaner, and the integration with Watson to apply analytics to email makes it the superior offering. Yet, many – even in the analyst community – have never heard of Verse. I don’t believe a strategy that deemphasizes the identity of this very good email platform is the right choice.

With regard to Verse, IBM is making headway here, although the company’s policy is not to reveal numbers from its customer base. All of IBM’s several hundred thousand users have been migrated to Verse and there are some useful new features and functions coming down the road. For example, an offline capability will be available at the end of March that will allow access to five days of email and 30 days of calendar (a future version will permit users to adjust the amount of content available offline). Two hundred IBMers are already using offline Verse. Given that the offline version using HTML 5 will suffice for the non-connected experience, there will not be a Verse client anytime soon, if ever. An on-premises version of Verse will be coming later this year. There are other developments to be made available soon, such as the ability to use Gmail and Verse simultaneously in trial accounts, that I will write about when they’re ready.

With regard to other vendors at Connect, I was quite impressed with Trustsphere’s LinksWithin offering that enables analysis of relationships within email, as well as Riva International’s server-side CRM integration capabilities that allow CRM data from a variety of leading platforms to be accessed within Notes, Exchange and other email clients and Webmail.

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.

Tim Tebow and Non-Microsoft Mail Systems

Exchange, Office 365 and Outlook dominate the business email market today and we are forecasting that they will gain market share over the next two years. There are three basic reasons for Microsoft’s dominance in the business email market.

  1. First, these offerings are pretty good – they work more or less as advertised and they integrate nicely with a wide variety of other solutions from Microsoft and other vendors.
  2. Second, they’re from Microsoft, the “IBM of the 1960s” choice for decision makers who often want to take the more conservative route by using only established, household names for their IT infrastructure.
  3. Finally, whether this was intentional or accidental, it was genius on Microsoft’s part for “Outlook” to become synonymous with “our corporate email system”. As I’ve written about in a previous blog post, many business decision makers have pushed their IT department toward Exchange because they like Outlook, assuming the latter is the email system and not simply an email client.

Non-sequitur: Tim Tebow is an incredibly polarizing figure in the NFL: virtually anyone who knows about his brief tenure in professional football either loves or hates him, but there are scant few in the middle. Despite leading the Denver Broncos to the playoffs in 2011, he never started another NFL game and today is only a memory in professional football.

Why? It might have to do with his outspoken Christian faith, charges that he doesn’t practice well, or his being a “distraction”. While the reasons for his not being in the NFL vary, it probably wasn’t because of his performance. For example, Tebow’s career Total Passer Rating is better than the rating for some of this year’s NFL starters. In his playoff-clinching 2011 season, he threw for 12 touchdowns, tied with or better than eight of this year’s NFL quarterbacks. In his first year in the NFL, his passing yards-per-attempt stats would place him fifth among this year’s quarterbacks, ahead of Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, Philip Rivers, Tom Brady and Cam Newton.

In some ways (and, yes, I know this will be a bit of a stretch for some), many mail systems are like Tim Tebow in one important respect: they’re better than some of the mail systems that are more commonly deployed, even though there are good reasons they should be selected. For example, a single administrator can run a Novell GroupWise deployment for 15,000 users, a level of administrator efficiency that more commonly deployed mail systems can’t match. Alt-N MDaemon Messaging Server is dramatically cheaper than Exchange Server 2013 Standard – 94% cheaper. Notes/Domino runs on a much wider variety of server platforms than Exchange. Zimbra has a number of advantages over Exchange in terms of cost-of-ownership and ease of deployment.

Again, this is not to say that Exchange is not a solid offering from an even more solid vendor. But there are reasons to at least consider other email platforms that might not be as conventional, “safe” or popular.