IBM Verse: Final Impressions

Back in May of last year I shared my first impressions in using IBM’s new e-mail client Verse. After using Verse for seven months the trial in which I had been participating came to an end. It was an interesting time as my experience with Verse caused me to look very closely at the various email clients I have been using and challenge what really matters to me in my choice of an email client.

UI (9/10)

As I mentioned in my first article, Verse is the single best designed mail client I have used. That hasn’t change. I recall my first impressions on using Connections several years ago. I simply could not believe that IBM was making a major push into social software based around a product that was so underwhelming from a UI perspective. That’s not the case with Verse. And the good news is that not only does Verse look good but IBM are also applying the IBM Design Language to newer versions of Connections.

I am concerned a little that the UI is starting to get a little cluttered as IBM adds new features to Verse. It was starting to look a little less like the original versions of Verse and a little more like Notes. Great for nostalgia but not for keeping the UI simple. IBM are going to have to watch this closely as they continue to add functionality.

So how does a superior UI affect behavior? In my case this was reflected in me choosing to use the product. When I am working from my office I typically have at least two notebooks (Apple and Windows), a tablet, and a smartphone at hand. When I had the need to use mail from the customer that was on Verse I was preferring to go to the notebook connected to my largest monitor and use Verse on that to process mail. When I did not have a notebook handy I found myself using Apple Mail (via Traveler) simply because the advantage of the Verse clients were not enough to overcome the disadvantages of having to use multiple mail clients to process all my mail.

On the flip side, now that I no longer have access to Verse I found myself installing the Windows mail application. I simply could not bear to go back to the kludgy Notes client interface for mail. My use of Verse reminded me that modern mail clients were fast to load and could perform simple tasks like easily filtering mail from a specific person.

UX (6/10)

The user experience of Verse is slowly improving as they start to integrate calendar, contacts, and to-dos into the same environment. IBM are still not there but they are making progress and I anticipate they will make a number of important announcements at Connect that outline the path forward, especially in the area of calendar.

I still feel IBM have a way to go to deliver a truly compelling User Experience. A simple example being that the default mail client in Connections is still iNotes and at least two click are required to invoke the Verse mail client. Really IBM, your marketing a new way to do work and you still make your legacy email client the default? I know IBM are aware of this and its seems such a trivial thing to address. To me, this is the difference between selling enterprise mail versus consumer mail clients. IBM need only sell Verse to the corporation and the users are then obligated to take what they have been given. IBM have such a large backlog of features yet to be delivered it seems they cannot prioritize improving the first impressions made each time the product is launched.

Mail Functionality (6/10)

It is obvious that IBM over promised and under delivered with Verse. Ultimately they had to decide to ship a less than complete mail client in order to deliver the product on time. I have seen some aggressive road-maps for new functionality to be added to Verse, but based upon the eight months I was using Verse I am pretty sure they are falling behind massively on delivering to that timetable.

At the moment Verse is providing most of the basic mail features that would be expected from a mail client. But there still remains a significant gap between what can be done in Verse and what can be done in Notes. I would ask how many of those features in Notes do we really need? But then IBM is largely beholden to a relative small number of large enterprise customers. They may very well demand many of these features being made available before they switch to Verse. So this could be a challenge to IBM, especially if they want to retain the clean simple look of Verse.

I would also question the value of some of the features IBM have chosen to make available first. Verse has an icon that allows the user to convert an email into a blog/wiki article inside Connections. In 35 years of using email I have never needed to use a feature like that. As a former member of the IBM Blogger program, its not like I never blog.  IBM is caught between trying to promote Connections as the way forward for Collaboration Software versus the development of Verse as an email client capable of standing on its own. I am sure IBM would like Verse to become a market leader in the Enterprise Email market but I don’t see a path for that happening. This means Verse will more likely be positioned as the mail component of Connections. Ultimately this will have a major impact on the features that are developed and the priority with which they are developed.

A New Way To Work (3/10)

For me this remained the biggest disappointment that came from using Verse after hearing all the marketing hype for the product. As a long time member of the yellowverse I wanted so much to see Verse emerge as a “New Way to Work” that would differentiate it from competitors and attract customers back to the IBM fold.

First… the current features available with Verse are not that significantly different to what has been available in mail clients for a long time, including Notes itself. It has a cleaner look and feel. Provides intuitive filtering for email. It keeps your calendar visible and provides a row of icons to facilitate communication with the people most important to me. But these are largely a nice repackaging of things that were already there, just harder to get to.

Second… many of the things IBM have planned for Verse are neither revolutionary or unique to IBM. What is unique to IBM is that they are all tied to the word “cognitive”. Many of IBM’s competitors (without Watson) are already delivering cool new features like a snooze for email threads, assisted replies, and smarter filtering and classification.

Smarter Mail

Email is definitely evolving and IBM Verse is part of that evolution. But it is not the only product driving change. As an example, please take a look at the following snapshots taken from my Google InBox mail client.

Inbox Example

InBox Travel

Right from my InBox I am able to get a nice concise summary of the content of most of my messages. Attachments are clearly identified and made available via a single click. Images contained within the email are displayed as thumbnails to allow me to quickly locate a message I am looking for. For items such as purchases or travel the mail client is trained to understand the content and present it in a nice concise summary with all the key information visible and again we have images to help locating the message. In some cases possible actions are also presented for me to select with a single click allowing me to track a package, listen to a voice mail, suggest a to-do item for follow up or perhaps additional contact information that is not found in my current contact details. These all help me to save time and save money and part of the way I am already working.

Smarter Calendars

We are also seeing something of a revolution in the way calendars work. The following is an example from my favorite calendar product Tempo.

Tempo Calendar

What we see is an example of how the UI can be improved to highlight the many important pieces of information traditional calendars have long buried. With a single click I can quickly get a map of the location for an event, call/email/chat with invitees to a meeting. And on the integration front my calendar is capable of displaying related information such as email threads, social media interactions etc with the people I am scheduled to meet. As good as it is, I don’t use Tempo very often because I really need to have these features integrated with my mail client. And that is the opportunity for Verse to be amongst the first to do this.

Integration (3/10)

The walls are starting to crumble on data silos around the world as new approaches look to integrate data from multiple sources into a single interface. It is therefore important to consider carefully the extent to which the content held in your mail system (mail, calendar entries, contacts, to-dos) can be integrated with data held in other sources. Clearly Verse has great integration with Connections. But is that enough for your organization? I have spoken previously about the declining market share that IBM now has in the Enterprise Email market. And it is a concern. IBM have announced integrations for Verse/Connections with Box and Outlook. But what about everything else, including products that are yet to emerge in the market place? The number of ISVs now developing for IBM Collaboration is dramatically down on what it was 15 years ago. I have looked at a lot of products over the past six months that might integrate with Verse, SameTime or Connections Files. It was very rare for these products to even mention IBM. I have made no secret about how much I am impressed with the Microsoft approach for Office 365 in building the office Graph that includes mail and calendar as a way of making important content available to third party applications in a secure, graph way. As I see it, it is going to be a challenge for IBM to convince ISVs and  major software developers to integrate their products with content held in Verse or Connections. Of course, if you are a major IBM customer and use many of their products this matters much less.

Un/anti/re/couter Migration (1/10)

OK so I am not quite sure what the verb is when you reverse a migration…. This is an important consideration when doing a trial of Verse, or even if you want to think ahead for what may lie ahead after Verse. IBM have developed a comprehensive set of tools to assist with migrating mail TO VERSE, but what happens should you decide you want to get your email back FROM VERSE? There are no tools for this and little to no documentation about how to go about this. So if this a possibility for your organization it would be a good idea to plan for this contingency as part of the original migration. In our case we chose to leave replicas of the original mail files on an on-premise Domino server. Forcing a replication with Smartcloud before disconnecting the Smartcloud account was a manual process and would be very time consuming to do on scale. It is difficult to see the migration from Verse market ever being large enough to warrant too many companies building mail migration tools, so plan accordingly.

Conclusions

Without doubt Verse is a vastly superior experience to the aging Notes client. Moving forward IBM will invest all of its attention for mail in the Verse client. For an IBM solution Verse is clearly the place to be. We are seeing a lot of change in mail/calendar products across the board. This includes their integration into broader social platforms. So when it comes to the question of replacing Notes we should keep in mind the strategy for the much broader category of collaboration tools and the Notes applications themselves. Don’t rush to move away from Notes without having a clear understanding of what it is you are wanting to move towards (and why).

Verse makes sense to any organization that currently uses Notes and has long term plans to remain with the IBM portfolio, especially with Connections. If cloud is an option for your  mail infrastructure I would look to move my mail infrastructure to SmartCloud ASAP to take advantage of the features found in Verse and the advantages that cloud provides. If your organization is uneasy about hosting mail in the cloud then you should wait for IBM to make Verse available on-premise. That should be in 2016. If there are features in the Notes client not yet available in Verse I would wait to see if/when they are made available. Finally, if you do not see Connections/Verse being the strategic direction you want to take for your company I would hold off until you have found the product(s) that meet your needs. SmartCloud is not a place from which I would be wanting to undertake a mail migration to an alternative platform such as Office 365 or Google Mail.

I miss Verse, but IBM are yet to convince me they have a strategy that will reverse the decline we are seeing in IBM’s share of Enterprise mail. Ultimately that will determine how much IBM invests long terms in Verse and how easy it will be to integrate Verse into everything else I use. For now I would rate Verse a B-. Verse is well groomed, has potential for growth but currently does not play well with others.

Peter Presnell
Peter Presnell
CEO at Red Pill NOW. Strategist, technologist, blogger, presenter, and IBM Champion 2011/12. For years many companies have invested heavily in the Notes/Domino platform and I see my role as helping to find paths forward for that investment.

4 Comments

  1. patrick kwinten says:

    are we in a time where a product gets a second chance?

    • @Patrick. Which product? Notes or Verse? Application Development or eMail? If you think back to 3-4 years ago IBM hinted about a new major release of Notes that was to be built on top of Notes 8.5.4.What they ended up doing was renaming Notes 8.5.4 Notes 9.0 and replacing Notes Next with Verse. At the IBM Leadership Alliance last year I was struck at the number of companies present who were willing to believe everything IBM was saying. It was a bit like attending a Microsoft event where everyone carries Windows phones. IBM has some very loyal customers and they are going to give IBM as many chances as they can. There are customers who gave IBM as many chances as they could and went elsewhere, and there is a group of customers in-between continuing to evaluate the market and decide which way they will go. Many of these don’t see it as a question of giving the product a second chance but more of giving the company a second chance.

  2. patrick kwinten says:

    I was referring to Verse as the subject of your review.

    nice to hear IBM has some loyal customers (something you deserve by doing things right).

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