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.

tracking email @ sign
Credit: geralt

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.

Migrating email is suicidal

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).

1990s email wars

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.

The problem with dominance

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.  

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