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Can IBM’s Mountain Of Data Fix Your Email Nightmare?

Is there room to innovate in the email and collaboration space? Infused with data and design chops, IBM is going to try.

Can IBM’s Mountain Of Data Fix Your Email Nightmare?
[Photo: Flickr user Patrick]

Everyone loves to hate email. The decades-old digital messaging standard has been shunned by high-profile tech bloggers (“the absolute devil!”) and declared nearly dead by a Facebook cofounder. Yet even Google’s attempt to reinvent collaboration and messaging was a legendary failure. So who’s going to step up with the next attempt to reinvent this seemingly permanent feature of our digital lives?

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Would you believe IBM?

The granddaddy of tech giants is launching a new platform today called IBM Verse. Billed as an enterprise collaboration suite, Verse has a heavy focus on re-imagining email with a simplified design and some under-the-hood smarts that IBM hopes will set it apart from the approximately six gazillion companies already competing in the space.

“This is mail that understands you,” says Jeff Schick, IBM’s head of social enterprise solutions. “It leverages analytics to understand your characteristics and behaviors and that which is most important to you.”

In a nutshell, IBM Verse does a few things: It attempts to simplify the email user interface by de-cluttering it and offering more direct pathways to the people and tasks that seem most important to you. It also integrates a calendar and other collaboration tools in ways that try to be less intrusive and more contextually useful.

Beyond the visual rethinking of email, Verse has a lot going on under the hood. IBM is using its own analytics platform to craft what it hopes will prove to be a much smarter inbox. Instead of just a list of unread messages, you’ll see a row of avatars–these are your colleagues and recent business contacts. They are ranked by how much you communicate with them, for example, or show who you may be awaiting a response from.

Meanwhile, IBM Verse will mine the contents of messages to try and understand their importance. This is a little like Google’s Priority Inbox, but with a more enterprise-focused logic behind it. In particular, IBM Verse is big on actions and figuring out which emails have some expected action tied to them. It also promises some advanced classification and filtering options that could make it easier to sift through the mountain of mail.

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For Verse to gain traction, IBM is going to need all the unique selling points it can trot out. Not only is email and communication a long-established, crowded space, but recent “focused email” efforts like Google’s Inbox and Microsoft’s Clutter appear to take aim at the same desire for a more sane digital work environment that IBM is aiming for. Meanwhile, real-time collaboration tools such as Yammer and Slack are gaining steam as replacements for what used to happen via inter-office email.

IBM is banking on the use of data smarts to set itself apart. When IBM Verse launches early next year, it will not only use IBM’s analytics-powered filtering and message prioritization, but it will offer a hint at its own future: Watson integration. Initially, IBM Verse have an optional Watson add-on that will serve as a sort of AI-powered tech support for the product itself. Natural language questions about Verse’s functionality and how to troubleshoot issues will yield relevant answers. It’s a minor, if still somewhat neat feature, but it’s hard to imagine that’s where IBM’s AI-powered collaboration ambitions end.

About the author

John Paul Titlow is a writer at Fast Company focused on music and technology, among other things.

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