25 years after Lotus Notes, IBM tries to reinvent email again

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IBM's Verse borrows ideas from Google's Inbox, then adds Watson-powered querying to let users tame their email

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Verse email from IBM is the sort of service you'd normally associate with a scrappy startup. Its mission: Make email less of a headache -- and, if possible, deal a blow to Google and its near-total dominance of the Web-based email market for individuals and businesses.

A blog post by Jeff Schick, VP, IBM Social Software, provides details about Verse in a demonstration video. Verse is designed to make mail self-organizing and tasks easier to prioritize, with people rather than messages as the basic unit of communication. Content shared between team members can be previewed without downloading, reminiscent of Office 365's handling of common document types.

Some of Verse's search and classification functionality will be powered by IBM's Watson machine-learning service. IBM's says this will "[enable] users to query Watson on a given topic and receive a direct reply with answers ranked by degree of confidence."

In many ways, Verse parallels Google's Inbox, which attempts to automatically categorize incoming email based on both the content of emails and user's behaviors with the messages. IBM also casts Verse as stronger on privacy than Google; the release notes that Verse offers functionality akin to "freely available mail services that mine a user’s inbox to increase advertising and monetize that data in other ways."

Verse was originally announced back in January as Mail Next, an overhaul to IBM's long-standing Lotus Notes product; the aim of making a user's inbox self-organizing was in the mission statement back then as well. Verse is based on the IBM Domino mail server system, and since Lotus Notes continues to eke out an existence in deployments around the globe, IBM is banking at least in part on having existing Notes users migrate into Verse.

When asked about the distinction between Notes and Verse, Schick replied in an email: "Notes is a rich client that IBM will continue to invest in. Verse is a Web-based experience that changes the paradigm on how people will work. IBM's mail service will support both Notes and Verse, giving our clients and business partners the ability to choose which option they prefer. If you are already running Notes, we protect your investment in IBM's mail service and allow users to seamlessly access Verse."

Apart from Notes users, another major audience for Verse may be users, period, as IBM is apparently preparing to offer Verse to most anyone who wants it. This is a major pivot from business -- and echoes Apple's path into businesses as it become a favorite of rank-and-file users (and one of IBM's new partners for enterprise applications). 

IBM hasn't disclosed how it plans to monetize Verse. With ads out of the question, the service will likely be free for individuals, with the advanced workgroup and Watson-powered analytics features available for paying customers. It's also possible that IBM may be looking to monetize Watson indirectly through Verse: examining the ways Verse users interact with Watson, using the data to further refine Watson's own intelligence, then adding monetizable Watson features via its public API set.

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