IBM Verse: A new way to work, or just solving an old problem?

Have you heard? IBM is giving us a “new way to work.” It’s turned up its marketing fluff machine full blast, on behalf of software called IBM Verse. (Note: In June 2019, IBM sold its Verse product to HCL Technologies.)

According to the fluff, IBM wanted to create a technology platform that would make workers more efficient, by finding and connecting the myriad pieces of information they had at their disposal. To build this platform, they say, they decided to start with email.

Screen image of IBM Verse user interface

IBM Verse user interface



Yep. Email. If you listen to the fluff, email is the bane of every office worker’s existence. IBM’s webinars and YouTube videos describe the demoralizing and productivity-draining experience of starting each day with an overflowing inbox and never being able to catch up.

Maybe that’s how it is at IBM. But here in the rest of the world, that sales pitch is outdated.

I get less email than I used to. I’m still bombarded with content — but now it comes from RSS feeds, from social media, from text messages, and only incidentally from email.

I appreciate software tools that help me create order from that content chaos. My email, a relatively minor contributor to the chaos, can be managed by dull, reliable tools like Microsoft Outlook.

And, for that matter, by Gmail. Gmail lets me find people and messages pretty easily. It sorts incoming mail so that I can see what’s most important. It even suggests people I might like to include on distribution when I create a message.

In the demos I’ve seen, Verse looks like Gmail with a smarter looking user interface. During a webinar with the R&D team on March 10, a questioner (not me) asked what’s the difference between Gmail and Verse. The long, rambling answer boiled down to this: Gmail is for personal use, Verse is for business. (Most of the answer, and in fact most of the webinar, centered on how much fun it was to design Verse.)

Sorry, but I’m not going to plunk down real money for a slightly new and improved Gmail. I’m good with the Gmail I’ve got.

Full disclosure: I worked for a long time in IBM’s Software Division, up until 2002. Then, and to this day, the ubiquitous email tool within IBM was Lotus Notes. Props to IBM for eating its own dog food. Unfortunately for them, Notes is a dog when it’s used as an email server. Once it was a pretty good database product — think SharePoint, only better. But when used for email, Notes on its best day can only mimic programs like Outlook. And its designers never quite got the UI right — so that whenever I figured out where something was in the drop-down menus, it would change in the next release.

I say that to say this: Maybe because of Notes’ shortcomings, email really is the bête noire for the people of IBM. Maybe that influenced the way they designed Verse, and maybe it’s influencing the way they’re marketing Verse.

Verse might yet prove to be a useful platform for managing the content that rushes at us from all directions. I hope Verse will become a vehicle through which IBM applies its formidable Watson technology to the very real problem of content overload.

I just don’t think they’re off to a good start with the way they’re marketing Verse.

What do you think? Give me an earful in the comments.

2 thoughts on “IBM Verse: A new way to work, or just solving an old problem?

  1. Mark Baker

    Why do companies keep on trying to fix things that aren’t broken? Email is not broken, never was. Everybody uses email all the time, and if it was broken, they wouldn’t.

    My guess is, designers like orderliness. They see something messy and they assume it must be broken. They assume that the user experience must be bad because it is messy. Thus the widespread view that email is broken, that the Web is broken, despite the fact that half the world lives and works with email and the Web all day long.

    Somehow they don’t stop to say, wait a minute, everybody is using this stuff all the time so it can’t really be as broken as we think.

    It is true, of course, that email is messy, and that the Web is messy. But maybe that isn’t a bad thing. Life is messy. The world is messy. Work is messy. Cleaning it up is work. Worse, cleaning it up often means grappling with principles of organization that don’t fit properly (because the world is actually messy, not just untidy, and the pieces do not all fit any organizational scheme).

    As a species, we have actually evolved to work and live in a messy world. Trains are tidy. Road are messy. Most of us would rather drive than take the train.

    Email and the Web work because they don’t try to pretend that the world is or should be less messy than it is. They are messy tools for a messy world, and that makes them the right tools for the job. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Mark. I always appreciate your depth of insight.

      If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

      If it is broken, take a moment to figure exactly what’s broken. In this case, is it email that’s broken, or is it something related – like content overload in general?

      Finally, even when you know what’s broken, will anyone be willing to pay you to fix it?


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