Can IBM redefine the future of email?

IBM may have a great product in Verse, but columnist Rob Enderle writes that if Big Blue can’t figure out how to market this powerful email offering, it will never rise to its potential.

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But email pretty much held, there was some push from open source projects and certainly in the consumer space Gmail became a power. However, for enterprise email there really wasn’t much of a challenge to Exchange even though, from the user’s perspective, Outlook pretty much remained stuck in the 1990s (which is OK as long is the user doesn’t suddenly want something else).

[ Related: Best open source email security products ]

Reenter IBM

Well IBM came back this year with a vengeance with a product called Verse and an alliance with Apple that is actually changing how IBM approaches this market. Verse is user-focused, it changes the process of last-in-first-out email management to one based on importance to the user. In addition, it layers on cognitive computing to both automate much of the process and assure that the user doesn’t make career ending or project limiting mistakes. With a full implementation its goal is to have a product that almost writes the email itself and helps the author ensure that not only the spelling and grammar are correct, but the tone of the email is appropriate.

[ Related: In search of IBM Verse ]

Future versions should be able to answer questions automatically that come in via email, instant messaging, social networks or text, freeing up the user to focus on those messages that require a more dedicated response.   In the meantime, companies including Microsoft, have been eliminating Forced Ranking, making the collaboration features once thought of as unusable much more important and the end result is an email client that is potentially as different from Outlook as Outlook was from Notes.

IBM’s Achilles’ heel

IBM Verse is arguably the best email client you’ve never heard of and this points to the product’s Achilles’ heel. You see one of the problems with a user- focused, rather than an IT-focused, approach is that users have to get excited about the project. Now when Louis Gerstner executed the IBM turnaround, one of the cornerstones of his effort was a marketing organization staffed by the best people he could find, something he evidently learned from turning around Nabisco. He, unlike most of the folks running tech companies, recognized that perception leads to reality and that folks would need to see IBM as different first. The organization would have to create a marketing program aimed at users designed to get them excited about the offering and drive it into their organizations.

[ Related: How end-user guilt inspires IBM to improve your email experience ]

Unfortunately, Gerstner’s successor, Sam Palmisano, didn’t see the value and dismantled it about a decade ago. This means IBM has a product that could displace Exchange, but its lacks the capability to drive it into the market and Microsoft’s new CEO is far more user focused and so IBM’s window may close pretty quickly.  Apple might be able to help, but it is having its own execution problem of late.

Lessons learned

There are a lot of lessons in the email battle, how a use- focused product can cut through a conflicted market like a hot knife through butter, how letting a better skunk works project win can assure success, how it is as important to innovate in a market you own as it is in a market you are entering, how thinking through people management policies should be part of product development, and how, sometimes, dominant companies create amazing opportunities for a challenger to innovate through.

But the big lesson is that if you don’t understand the power of marketing, instead of assuring success, you may instead be preventing it.  

With Verse, IBM has a powerful tool to retake the email market, but without an equally powerful marketing campaign, it can’t rise to its potential.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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