In the Wheelhouse: Cloud First. Mail Next. Customer Last.

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When it comes to the future of email, we need to all be on the same page. But are we even reading the same book?


Last week, I was on a webcast for IBM's forthcoming email product, IBM Mail Next. While on the webcast (and any webcast actually), I was also plugged into a number of social media outlets, Skype chats, and the like in order to discuss the content of the presentation with industry peers and get a feel for their thoughts and insights into what IBM deems as the future of email.


I first wrote about Mail Next after IBM Connect 2014 in January. My sentiment at the time was entirely positive. The product had a nice, fresh look that resembled very little what we're used to with IBM Notes. The interface was stripped down, giving you the bare essentials to ensure your mail experience is as clutter-free as possible, highlighting work that's important to you, and allowing you to mute the content that isn't either relevant or action items.


Focus only on the work that matters. It all sounded so slick, neat, and streamlined, albeit missing a ton of features that I'd want to have if I needed to use them. You see, it's hard to push out a next-generation, streamlined product when Notes does everything you'd want an email product to do. With that being said, the value (and not necessarily features) you get from the new web-based product must exceed the thick client or people just aren't going to buy into it.


Here's the scuttlebutt:


People were expecting a lot more since January. They were expecting a live demo. There were no major "here's what's new since we showed you the screen shots at Connect" moments.


This webcast was almost like an indoctrination session with a line being drawn in the sand with the Mail Next roadmap.


Three points were made abundantly clear:


1. Start moving your users to the web-based iNotes now.

2. Start using the Notes browser plug-in so that your legacy Domino applications can be accessed from the web.

3. There are no plans for on-premises IBM Mail Next.


Now, I see points 1 and 2 to be part of the same message: the IBM Notes client is not IBM's focus. I won't go as far as to say that the Notes client will go away soon, but if I were a betting man I'd give it a 50-50 shot that it lasts five years. Being under a number of nondisclosure agreements with IBM, I'm only looking into the crystal ball and reading into the publicly available information here. All signs point to a web-based mail interface being the future for IBM's mail investment.


By the end of this webcast, I was left with more questions than answers.


Where do IBM Notes and Mail Next intersect? Do IBM Notes customers move to Mail Next in six months, one year, three years? If so, how do they do it? Will there be a Domino 9.5 or Domino 10 in the future, and will the product lines run side by side, or do the Domino components of Mail Next actually become Mail Next in the future?


That's where the abundantly clear point 3 comes in.


During the webcast, a good portion of the Q&A was made up of questions about on-premises availability (aside from the 10-15 minutes where the Q&A went dark). Yet the questions about on-premises availability were left unanswered until they were addressed at the very, very end of the presentation (visualize a webcast buzzer-beater shot attempt that clanged off the rim and then ricocheted off Jack Nicholson's head), and only after a good number of people were pleading with the IBM presenters to do so, including a few I know personally whose companies run some seriously expensive IBM iron. Those customers want to align with IBM strategy if it makes sense to do so, or help IBM adjust their strategy based on the customer business requirements.


I can't recall the exact quotes, but you can listen to the replay if you'd like. I can't bring myself to go through it again. Essentially, it boils down to IBM having no intention of making Mail Next an on-premises offering. IBM claims that what they hear from their customers is a resounding demand for SmartCloud. Yet, the people I talk to and the participants in the Q&A panel in last week's webcast tell a different story. There is a disconnect somewhere, and I hope the people running the Mail Next program hear loudly from customers about their on-premises needs.


I won't turn this article into an on-premises vs. outsourcing piece as I've tackled that before. I won't say IBM doesn't get demand for SmartCloud, because they most obviously do. What I am saying is that the word on the street that I hear about that webcast and the "Cloud First" initiative is certainly not all positive. With this product, it's not just Cloud First. At this point, it's Cloud Only. Many customers want an on-premises mail offering, and Mail Next isn't that.


Circling back to the points on iNotes and the Notes browser plug-in, the ability to run web apps is a concern of the present, not the future. Ironically, the Notes browser plug-in was announced and demoed at Lotusphere just a couple of years ago, and if memory serves me right it got far more applause and people standing up than anything else featured in the opening general session, although it appeared about 90 minutes in. I wonder how many of those clapping hands represented on-premises accounts compared to SmartCloud. Also, if the move is eventually away from the Notes client, then I can't be the only one to see the irony in calling the Notes browser plug-in a plug-in. Browser plug-ins aren't hundreds of megabytes in size, comprised of Notes client code. It's essentially IBM Notes; the thick client is under the covers but with a browser as the user interface.


The drawbacks of a clientless mail/application world come to the surface the moment an executive gets on a plane without Wi-Fi and can't get his Notes mail archive to look up something from last year. The Internet of things is growing, but offline mail is still a requirement until every airlineincluding small commuter carriersoffers cheap or free Wi-Fi on every flight. The same thing applies for many other industries.


Coincidentally, IBM just rebranded the Connect conference (formerly Lotusphere) for 2015 as ConnectED. In private circles, I've read other monikers like RejectED and DejectED, which sums up the feeling of customers about the future of on-premises IBM mail software.


Notes 9 was a giant step forward in terms of aesthetics. Being rebranded with IBM instead of Lotus was also a giant step forward. So what's the future of mail, IBM? And does the future you envision align with many of your customers who run Domino in-house and/or depend on a thick mail client?


This writer doesn't think so. But it's still early enough in the Mail Next roadmap to get aligned. The cloud isn't for everyone. On-premises is not for everyone. To offer only one choice isn't the right thing to do.