Much of the buzz at ConnectEd has been centered around IBM Verse. I doubt this product will ever live up to the hype IBM is generating but it does have the potential to be very transformative for IBM.
I didn’t fully understand this until attending the Leadership Alliance held as part of ConnectED earlier this week. Until now I thought that my disappointments working with the Notes platform in recent years had been because the Notes product was no longer considered modern. That IBM’s failure to invest in the platform had resulted in a growing number of companies seeking alternatives. That Verse was one last grab by IBM to retain some of the Mail market before its long presence came to an abrupt end.
During 2014 the message seemed to be changing from needing to get rid of Notes to one of getting rid of IBM. The rebranding from Lotus Notes to IBM Notes would do little if the IBM brand was also in decline. And then it hit me… It not just Notes, but IBM that is no longer modern. As an aging baby-boomer population retires from organizations and the next generation of IT executives began to rise in influence the leverage IBM once had is starting to wane. IBM needs to modernize. Not just in terms of the products it sells, but the entire process by which these products are developed and brought to market. In Verse we are seeing some of the transformation that is happening within IBM that has the potential to make IBM modern once more.
The most obvious thing about Verse when compared with the Notes mail client and iNotes is the cleaner, simpler UI. IBM is now adopting many of the same UX found in other great web-based products. Exceptional Web Experience has gone from being an oxymoronic IBM brand to a reality.
Verse is more than just a modern UI for email. It encompasses a new breed of application capability, that of assisted discovery that comes from adding analytics to the mail interface making it much easier for relevant information to be found. We see this same capability in Google Search, Siri, and IBM Watson.
Verse works equally well as a responsive web or mobile client. While I am sure many of these features could be implemented in Notes I doubt any of them ever will. Thick clients remain popular for mobile devices but not desktop computers (I suspect because of the difficulties associated with installing and updating them). IBM is now replacing Notes mail with Verse and so the fate of Notes seems almost assured just as it turned 25.
Yes, IBM now offers Freemium! Modern licensing??? Well that seems to still be under development.
Verse. Now that is a name I can live with. It is simple, easy to remember and comes with none of the emotional baggage or false expectations of a more traditional IBM-ish name like the IBM Connections Exceptional Mail Experience for a Smarter Planet
IBM‘s Cloud-First approach was announced at Connect last year. Verse will be available in the cloud at the end of the quarter and (maybe) later in the year on-premise.
After many years of the Notes community complaining about the lack of TV advertising that dared to mention product names IBM have actually gone to air with a series of TV ads that feature Verse. It’s not new but it is still modern.
Here in the US we have a political system that few seem to be happy with. Every two years we have candidates promising to change the way Washington works. When they get to Washington they are suddenly confronted with two choices. Become a maverick and get absolutely nothing done, or agree to conform to the system in exchange for getting a small part of their agenda implemented. The culture of Washington has become so entrenched there is little that can be done to change it.
I can’t help but think that IBM is a lot like Washington. Every year we see many brilliant people get jobs at IBM and they are almost immediately confronted with choices between conforming to the system or being squeezed out. IBM is a company with a 1980s culture. It allowed itself to become a company where attaining a specific Earnings per Share becomes more important than goals like keeping their customers, suppliers, business partners, and employees happy.
A culture like this is not going to change overnight. But at the OGS we heard from Phil Gilbert, the head of the new IBM Design Center. This is without doubt the most inspiring speech I have heard from an IBM executive ever! My colleague Nathan Freeman was moved enough to offer a one-man standing ovation. Not only does Phil lead a team that is making design an important priority for products such as Verse, but he is also going about it in a way that does not follow the traditional IBM culture. They are targeting a new breed of young designers from the best design schools and placing them in a work environment that is more typical of companies like Google, Facebook, or YouTube. They are designing products on the basis of customer empathy. And I love the messages posted on the bulletin boards — “Don’t Ship Sh*t”. I have never aspired to be an IBM employee, but if I was only now graduating from college this sounds like a pretty cool place to work.
Design is still a small part of the IBM machine but I am sure Ginni Rometty is fully aware of what Phil is accomplishing and the way he is going about it. I also suspect she is quite happy to know that Phil is out and about talking to people like us about this change.
So, for the first time in a long while, I see a glimmer of hope. It is already too late for Notes. We have to get over that and move on. But if the products that follow, like Verse and Connections Next, are more design-centric and built to be more empathetic with its users then IBM may find a way to reinvent itself and appear modern to a new generation. I have my fingers crossed.