IBM joins race to upgrade webmail interface with Verse

IBM aims to eliminate clutter and understand the user's needs with its Verse web interface for email

IBM Verse is a new interface for email. Among its highlights are a side-scrolling calendar view at the bottom, and a quick contacts zone at the top with, to the left, the user's favorites and, to the right, contacts Verse considers important.

IBM Verse is a new interface for email. Among its highlights are a side-scrolling calendar view at the bottom, and a quick contacts zone at the top with, to the left, the user's favorites and, to the right, contacts Verse considers important.

Google has tried it with Inbox, Microsoft handed Outlook Web App users Delve and now, with Verse, IBM is giving webmail a fresh look as it teaches its venerable Domino mail server new tricks.

IBM's goals with Verse, released Thursday, include eliminating clutter, understanding the user, and blurring the line between messaging and social networking in the enterprise.

The interface makes it simpler to identify the people involved in a conversation and how they are related to one another, and to pull up all communications with them by clicking on their photos.

Given the constraints of email, IBM's restructuring can only go so far: The interface still features two panes, with the message list on the left and the message preview on the right. But around that IBM has introduced a number of neat features.

Across the top of the screen, for instance, is a toolbar that Verse senior product manager Scott Souder calls "the important-to-me area" -- the branding department clearly has some work still to do. This shows, to the left, a user's favorite contacts and, to the right, key contacts selected by Verse. Users of iOS 8 see something like this on double-clicking their device's home button, although Apple insanely wastes space by allowing favorite contacts to also appear in the recent list, a faux-pas IBM avoids.

For now, Verse looks at the frequency of communication to determine who is key, rather than simply listing the most recent contacts. In the future it could analyze a mailbox and directory more deeply to determine which contacts are the most important, Souder said.

Clicking on a contact's photo -- or a contact's name in almost any context within Verse -- brings up more information about recent communications with the person, and offers the possibility of mailing, messaging or videoconferencing if the user account allows it.

The bottom of the screen is home to another important feature: a side-scrolling calendar that indicates the day's appointments with horizontal bars. The title and location of the current event is always shown, while mousing over other event bars displays their details. This minimalist presentation allows Verse to display the most important calendar information without flipping to another screen.

In email threads involving many different people, it's sometimes difficult to keep track of who's who and why they're involved. Verse can help out by drawing an organizational chart of how recipients of a message are connected to one another. To avoid embarrassment or leaks, Verse explicitly highlights the names of recipients from outside the organization.

This is just the start, according to Souder, and IBM already has plans to add a personal assistant to Verse using technology from its Watson division, and to open up the platform to third-party developers. This could result in the integration of information from external networking tools such as LinkedIn or Twitter.

Links with external social networks are already a feature of Outlook Web App for Office365 subscribers, and Microsoft continues to develop a new offering, Delve, to enable content and contact discovery.

Google, meanwhile, is taking its own approach to decluttering with Inbox, an invitation-only front-end to Gmail that purports to surface the most important emails from a user's mailbox by grouping them into related "Bundles."

Whether their efforts will be sufficient to persuade organizations that email-centric systems are still the best way to communicate internally remains to be seen. Customers may be tempted by the siren call of unified communications vendors such as Unify, which combines video, voice calls, chat and email into a single conversation on its Circuit platform. Or they may turn to a new category of tool from startups such as Slack or Glip, which sell collaboration tools built around instant messaging.

When IBM launched the private beta test of Verse in mid-November, it said it would release the software in the first quarter, a deadline it has only narrowly missed.

The Web version of Verse is now available, with an iPhone app to follow later this month, an iPad app late next month, and an Android app in late June, said Souder. Organizations must put their mail on a Domino server to use Verse -- although IBM is offering to host basic mail and calendar functions on Domino for free, Souder said.

Peter Sayer covers general technology breaking news for IDG News Service, with a special interest in open source software and related European intellectual property legislation. Send comments and news tips to Peter at peter_sayer@idg.com.

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