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In search of IBM Verse

IBM

IBM Verse cloud-based mail system

It’s been almost exactly 10 months since IBM formally launched its analytics-infused messaging system called Verse, and while the company’s announcement of “software for a new way to work” initially generated a relatively positive blast of press and analyst coverage, buzz about the cloud-first product has dwindled since. So I went in search of signs of excitement, or even signs of life, for Verse at the IBM Connect conference this week in Orlando.

It’s fair to say that IBM didn’t exactly lead with Verse in terms of its IBM Connect marketing, rather pushing a broader message about social business and digital experience. Though a fresh press release touting the company’s “growing social business momentum” does mention Verse a few times and even cites one of IBM’s Connections Cloud customers –- a professional services and telesales company called Flex Contact Center -- that is now rolling out Verse to 11,000 employees worldwide. What’s more, the integrated mail and calendaring technology was the subject of numerous sessions, from “Going Mobile with IBM Verse” to “Boom – Deploying IBM Verse and Connections Cloud at IBM.”

DESIGN THINKING: How end-user guilt inspires IBM to improve your email experience 

It took a while for IBM to get around to Verse (as in, short for “converse”) on Monday at the show, which kicked off that day with an appearance by charged-up/exhausting NatGeo TV show host Jason Silva and an amusing recycled TED@IBM talk on why computing devices need to have a sense of humor. Indeed, the first significant mention of Verse at the event came during one of those seemingly endless demos starring IBM personnel pretending to be customers.

During the showcasing of a homepage that presents a unified view of mail, calendaring, social networks and notifications, IBM customer experience executive Chris Crummey -- styling the rare combination pocket square/iPhone case -- employed Verse to reach out to a colleague and accelerate sharing of content. He also showed how Verse’s calendaring technology can use Watson-powered smarts to advise him which of several conflicting meetings he should attend (uh, the one with the most people above him in the org chart) and monitor emails for tone. In addition, Crummey demonstrated how a Verse calendar snapshot can be taken so that it can be accessed offline. 

Bob Brown/NetworkWorld

IBM's Chris Crummey stays in sync with colleagues via his cellphone during a social business demo at IBM Connect

Also during the opening sessions, Enterprise Social Solutions GM Jeff Schick dropped a bombshell -- well, OK, whatever the thing is that’s slightly less than a bombshell –-that IBM would be providing Verse as an on-premises upgrade to its Domino “Next” social business application platform during the second half of 2016. Yes, if you haven't been paying attention, both the Domino server and Notes client -- formerly the stars of IBM Connect predecessor Lotusphere -- do live. The thinking goes that there's still demand for on-premises products by those organizations perhaps still not quite comfortable with putting everyting in the cloud as well as those not allowed to do so because of governance rules.

Schick, who has been part of IBM's collaboration business since 2006 and is the Father of IBM Connections, expanded on Verse during a follow-up interview.

He boasted that it is the first Web-based mail with an encrypted local store for offline use. It is also the first messaging system using true faceted search, based on the Apache Solr engine, that enables advanced sleuthing for information, Schick says. Verse too can help users visualize who all those people are that get cc:ed on messages sent to you.

"There are improvements that you can make to mail and calendaring that are just so intuitive," he says. "There's a lot of innovation that can really take place in this space."

Bob Brown/NetworkWorld

IBM Enterprise Social Solutions GM Jeff Schick reveals Toscana, a conversation engine that could bolster Verse and other enterprise social tools

For example, Schick discussed a mobile app and Web-based conversation engine dubbed Toscana that would work with products like Verse and could address shortcomings of popular internal text messaging-like apps such as Slack, which he claims users are challenged with from an information organization standpoint. "People are struggling with the basic utility of having a conversation and how to get back to the information and decisions, etc.," he said, adding that it's unclear now whether Toscana will be sold as a separate product or embedded in Verse or Connections, or both. (It is slated to go into customer beta in April.)

(Here's how to trial Verse if you have any desire.)

IBM VERSE ROADMAP

IBM’s Verse team dove deeper into the email offering in a breakout session during which the product’s 2016 road map was revealed (see photo below). A sampling of

intended upgrades include support for easier meeting creation, BOX.com integration, filtering to see unread messages only and Watson as a personal assistant. 

Bob Brown/NetworkWorld

IBM's Scott Souder grants a sneak peek at the 2016 Verse roadmap...

Bob Brown/NetworkWorld

...and the paparazzi goes wild snapping photos of the roadmap

Scott Souder, program director and project manager for IBM Verse, assured attendees of this session that “this product is taking off… As time continues to move forward I expect the hockey stick for Verse to be like what we saw when Notes and Domino took off in its early years.”

Verse is also getting smarter and more extensible, Souder said. Without violating end users' privacy, "from a systemic perspective we've gathered a bunch of junk about you just by how you interact, how you share stuff, with whom you share stuff, we know when you're in a meeting... thematically what you're going to see as we go on with Verse is we're going to continue to pry that can open a little bit and take more and more advantage of stuff that the system has gleaned about you," he says.

Despite Verse's much ballyhooed analytics, user interface and faceted search, IBM hasn't exactly been bombarding the market with case studies, though it has identified early adopters here and there, including global advertising company Havas. Anecdotally, the customers I spoke to at IBM Connect were all at the Verse window shopping stage at best, and Verse never came up during a 1-hour panel session featuring 5 IBM customers who spoke about their social adoption strategies.

IBM won't share any real numbers about Verse adoption other than, that is, IBM's own migration to it. IBM is by far the biggest Verse shop, with most of its nearly half a million employees having the messaging system available to them now.

IBM GOES ALL-IN ON VERSE

Ed Brill, VP of social business cloud services, has been documenting IBM's Verse rollout on his blog and gave a live update during an IBM Connect break-out session. That session attracted a standing-room-audience of 150-plus people, including what appeared to be many from Brill's extended team.

The latest on IBM's deployment is that the massive Notes shop is pretty much making Verse available to everyone, and has encouraged adoption through a social/community-oriented engagement approach rather than by just having IT shove the product down employees' throats. Some 40,000 IBMers volunteered to be early adopters. Even CEO Ginni Rometty started using it in August, according to Brill. While Verse has been rolled out to most everyone else, only about 25% are actually using it at least once a day, proving that old email habits can be hard to break, Brill said.

Bob Brown/NetworkWorld

IBM's Ed Brill shared a graph depicting Verse's rollout to nearly half a million IBMers over the past year

While Brill acknowledged that early on that some internally referred to the Curse of Verse, he said kinks have been worked out in using, deploying and supporting it. The company has gone all the way from a "pretty painful" 11-step process to convert people from premises-based to cloud-based messaging to a much more palatable one-button process, with Japan leading the way on that. By last fall, a few months after IBM began its migration to Verse, it was switching over 25,000 people a week, Brill said.

In the end, Verse wasn’t that hard to find at IBM Connect if you knew where to look and who to ask. It will be interesting to see if at next year’s show Verse will be hard to avoid.

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