In the Wheelhouse: IBM Verse Leaves Many Questions

Analysis of News Events
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Last week, IBM unveiled IBM Verse, formerly IBM Mail Next. Although impressive, we still need clarification of plan.


I've written about IBM Mail Next before. The last few weeks featured a major buildup to two web conferences. The first webcast appeared geared for analysts, and the second was something else entirely, featuring a panel discussion about the state of email and how IBM's vision of it would ultimately make end users' lives much better by adding predictive analytics.


IBM Mail Next has been baptized as IBM Verse, a new take on email that collects all of the familiar concepts of modern work (e.g., cloud, analytics, social, collaboration, etc.) and puts them into a big melting pot in order to overall improve the mail user productivity experience. The name isn't bad. Think Verse as in "converse." And thank goodness it's not a recent stereotypical name like IBM Social Analytical Mail Experience 1.0. It's short and to the point.


Everyone wants mail to work better for them since it's arguably the biggest time-sucker of the average worker's day. We use it as a file sharing utility, a file storage repository, and, yes, even a method for communicating to each other with messages. The amount of time searching, dismissing, actioning, foldering, and such in order to maintain a sense of order increases on a daily basis like a bad gambler's debt. And while we try to get users and ourselves to use other tools to collaborate, it all comes back to email in the end.


The interface for IBM Verse is influenced by design thinking, a concept created by Stanford University's Institute of Design. Design thinking is essentially having empathy for the end user experience. And to be fair, IBM's interface is pretty slick. Check out the screen shots from the first webcast.


Does it revolutionize email as advertised? Does it live up to the #NewWayToWork hash tag on Twitter? I don't really think so. But I think it's a good start on a fresh directional shift in both design and implementation. By design, I mean it looks quite attractive and modern. By implementation, I mean it's cloud-based. Not that IBM hadn't been in the cloud before, but the bigger cloud ventures were an extension of existing products rather than a cloud-based product leading the show. With IBM Verse, the roles are reversed.


It's a nice-looking product, and I will try it once it opens up to the public early in the new year. Also, the marketing behind Verse is unprecedented. If IBM gets even moderate public upswing for consumers, then it will be a success in my eyes.


Now, with that being said, I'll take my analyst hat off and put my customer helmet on.


IBM Verse is slated to be released in early 2015 on cloud. The on-premises version will come later.


Scott Souder, Program Director, Messaging and Collaboration Solutions at IBM, elaborated on the plans for IBM Verse (Mail Next) including the on-premises intent, which I've highlighted below:


That's one of the $64,000 questions everybody is asking. I want an on premises version of this thing as well. I was sitting just a few days ago with one of our development vice presidents and she and I were in a briefing with some of our other IBM colleagues – a large account, a very important account, I won't share the name of the account – but somebody from the account asked her the same question, and I liked her response. We're all about doing this on premises. We've not been shy in saying "Yeah, we get it; we understand that people are going to want capability and similar fashion on premises that we're building here in the cloud." But, she was very clear – and I like the answer that she gave, I have a lot of respect for her, it's Ronnie Maffa, everybody knows Ronnie – her answer was that we get it, we're going to something from an on-premises perspective, but frankly we're going to see what the uptake is in the cloud because we've got a ton of momentum behind cloud right now as everybody knows and appreciates. We're going to see how that plays out in a good chunk of 2015; we'll make some decisions along the path in 2015 to where and when we actually do the on premises piece, but in all candor we may – and this was her response – we may actually wait until 2016 before we do the on-premises version.


We don't want to sell the cloud stuff short. We expect there to be a pretty good ramp up throughout 2015. IBM is an example, golly we're moving all 400,000 people into cloud inside of IBM in the course of 2015 and into early 2016. Part of that experience will be Mail Next. So we want to give the cloud a decent shot here at success before we absolutely start working on the on premises thing. But that day will come, and we'll make sure that we are signaling to the market the time and place at which to expect that, but that gives you at least a little bit of an idea of what we're thinking for on premises.


This is certainly more positive than what we've heard in the past as far as a commitment to on-premises support for IBM Verse (Mail Next). A few months ago, my perception was that the responses from IBM to questions about on-premises support was wishy-washy at best. Scott Souder was kind enough to comment on direction after that piece was published, and I think he understands that on-premises customers need insight to the plan, whether it's no plan for on-premises support or support that's six months out or two years out. And that's a good thing.


But the big information we need is how IBM Verse relates to IBM Domino. Verse is partly powered by Domino, of course, but how does Verse relate to the future of Domino for on-premises customers? Will we see a Notes/Domino 9.5 or 10? Will the products be merged? What will happen to iNotes development and support? Will there be a client of sorts for Verse? If not, what do we tell the executive who wants to create mail on an airplane? And don't forget on-premises does not necessarily mean on the platform you have to run your business, although if Domino/Websphere are big components, then at least it has a shot.


My position hasn't changed in that I think a cloud-first deployment strategy is unfair to IBM hardware customers, especially for readers of this publication who have IBM Power Systems and IBM i. But what we must accept is that IBM is going with a cloud-first strategy because they see benefits in doing such. I can't fault any business unit that wants to drive revenue. I would imagine IBM Software Group has different goals than IBM Systems and Technology Group, and most customers likely either don't care or don't know what IBM business group owns which product. They just see IBM as the whole. But I do believe that we as customers with on-premises infrastructure must communicate with IBM, either through our Business Partners or to IBM reps directly, to ensure that they're aware of our wants and needs from both a software and hardware perspective.


It's only after they hear those wants and needs that they can show empathy to the customer, similar to the design thinking of IBM Verse.