Can IBM redefine the future of email

I was in the middle of the great email battle between Microsoft and IBM [Disclosure: Microsoft and IBM are clients of the author] in the 1990s and there really wasn’t much competition. Microsoft had Exchange, which had its greatest power in its focus on users. IBM bought Lotus to get Notes, which had stronger administration tools and a far better focus on collaboration, but sucked at email. In the end, Microsoft dominated, massively, and Exchange is the recognized standard for business email.

However, IBM just brought out Verse, its new advanced email offering, and it comes to market with many of the same advantages over Exchange that Exchange had over Notes. But, this is email, and experienced CIOs know that changing email is potentially a career-ending process. In order to succeed with a user-focused product you have to get the users excited about it, which may be a skill IBM no longer has.

Let’s talk about email.

This is often the conclusion of anyone who has done it. If the migration goes perfectly, and I’ve never known an email migration to go perfectly, no one pats you on the back for getting the job done. Email touches everyone from the temp worker on the loading platform to the chairman of the board. If a migration goes badly every one of these folks will quickly become vocal members of the “fire the CIO” club.  

An email migration, as a result, tends to be hard to sell to anyone but an inexperienced CIO unless there is a massive push by the users and the executive management team to make the change. This is why a user-focused product is so critical. Outside of some industries where IT has near god-like powers, an IT-focused product just won’t sell well here and you need a massive user benefit to get the users to rally around this change. Then they can drive it in, over IT if necessary, as we saw happen with the iPhone and Windows 95.

All of this speaks to why the smart CIO generally leaves email migrations to someone else, and knows that it makes a great present to a successor (especially if the departing CIO is pissed about their departure).

It was fascinating to be part of the email wars in the 1990s. What made the fight interesting was that Outlook was Microsoft’s killer app, but it almost didn’t make it. Its creation was part of a skunks work project, which the Exchange people apparently didn’t know about, to create a better email client. It was a good thing too because the Exchange email client really sucked. Now this doesn’t always happen in a big company. Often when some separate group comes up with something better they just get shot. A good example was Chromeeffects, which could have been what Adobe Flash became but it died due to political infighting.   (For its time it was a pretty amazing product).

With Outlook we had a very user-focused Microsoft Office-like user experience on top of a pretty decent back-end which IT didn’t hate. Collaboration was a big thing and IBM felt it could drive collaboration with a product that was arguably more secure and that IT administrators actually liked better. What both they and Lotus didn’t think through was that a practice called “Forced Ranking” that had made it out of GE and spread like a virus through the technology market. This practice pitted employee against employee and made collaboration all but impossible. So Notes’ killer feature didn’t work in IBM thanks to an incredibly stupid decision to apply a process from GE designed as a triage for an emergency turnaround as a general management process.

Thus Microsoft administrators really didn’t have much authority, and Notes’ killer feature (collaboration) had been institutionally neutered.

If you were to describe the 2000s by theme, in Microsoft one of them would be “sitting on their laurels.” Exiting the 1990s they were dominant in pretty much everything they touched and they got pounded by the government for some of the questionable things they did to Netscape that made it even harder to respond to threats. Ironically, Netscape self-destructed anyway, but this combination of unwillingness to invest and inability to respond created a foundation for bleeding market share and power that is almost unmatched short of government-driven breakups.

IE didn’t change much and suddenly market share was bleeding to Google, Windows didn’t change much and had some really bad releases, and success on smartphones and tablets was taken as a given. Microsoft mostly held on with Windows but got creamed on smartphone and tablets (along with a few other once dominant players). That got us to this decade where the Microsoft CEO was forced out and the company has been adjusting to a very different more competitive world where Google, Apple and Amazon are all arguably more influential.  

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 ]

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 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.

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.


Rob Enderle

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