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.

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.