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.