Gunning for Google, IBM Brandishes a Smarter Inbox

Brad Shimmin
Brad Shimmin

Summary Bullets:

  • Last week, IBM subtly declared war on Google’s dominant consumer e-mail service, Gmail. The idea isn’t to out-Google Google, but rather to build a smarter, more cognitive inbox for the enterprise.
  • IBM is entering the freemium, consumer-grade e-mail arena with a new cloud-borne service that revolves not around traditional e-mail notions like inbox triage, but instead around the lofty idea that e-mail is itself a workflow.

Last week at IBM’s annual user conference dedicated to all things collaborative (lately called Lotusphere and newly christened ConnnectED), a curious thing happened: IBM declared war on Google. No, it wasn’t a typical trade show exercise in rabble rousing or an all-out “I must break you” sort of moment such as that delivered by Microsoft’s former CEO Steve Ballmer back in 2012, when he called down the thunder on Apple just prior to launching Windows 8 and the Surface tablet. But it did happen. During the opening keynote, IBM’s General Manager of Social Software, Jeff Schick, stood on stage and officially announced the imminent release of IBM Verse. He also announced that IBM would use Verse to take on Google’s e-mail juggernaut, Gmail.

That is a bold statement. Basically, IBM wants to remake the e-mail inbox, one of the most hated aspects of modern technology and of modern life in general. The inbox is universally accepted as one of the most effective means of killing effectiveness, a situation decried within innumerable studies such as the 2012 Center for Creative Leadership study which found that each of us dump 72 hours per week connecting to the office via our beloved inbox. So, why try to fix something so irrevocably broken? Why try to compete against something with more than 500 million (as of mid-2014) willing users? The short answer is, of course, “more than 500 million users.”

But, for IBM, I think Verse is not just a Gmail alternative. It is in many ways a glimpse into the future of all IBM software products: smarter products that know us and can anticipate what we need based on what we’re doing and what we’ve done in the past. For Verse, this means the application of domain-specific analytics including heuristics (and maybe even a little bit of machine learning), natural language processing, predictive analytics and other technologies found within the company’s highly differentiated Watson family of products. With these tools, Verse can learn our behavior as we deal with e-mail and then help us better prioritize and better integrate that e-mail into the way we do our jobs.

And, of course, Verse intends to do this via the cloud, fully taking advantage of IBM’s global data center footprint with SoftLayer, and using a true (and new to IBM) freemium business model. Certainly this all lines up quite nicely with Google Gmail in terms of getting to market and even in terms of adding smarts to the inbox, as evidenced by Google’s recent introduction of Inbox by Gmail, a product that – like Verse – turns e-mail triage into a usable workflow with auto tagging, reminders, assists (such as adding a map to a restaurant reservation e-mail) and a snooze button.

Can IBM out-Google Google with Verse? I seriously doubt it, given the solidity of the Gmail user base and Google’s growing interest in the enterprise. But, does that matter in the end? I think Verse will be a resounding success if it does nothing more than show customers that IBM can develop modern software capable of meeting current market demands. And if it drives interest in Watson and helps bring the company’s still viable and invested Notes and Domino customer base forward, all the better.

What do you think?

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