The title says it all, on multiple levels. The skies are cloudy and the products are moving to The Cloud. The conference’s underlying theme is social (with a de-emphasis on collaboration) and the real reason to attend is also social. Although some sessions do offer inspiring glimpses into companies using IBM technology, or overviews of technical issues for the stalwart app devs who used to attend this event under its Lotusphere moniker, face-to-face relationship building remains a key element. And for devs, access to technical talent on specific issues, which probably aren’t the ones being covered in sessions. As Connect, the conference is much more conceptual, trying to make sure people know what IBM develops, delivers and sells—and what some very high profile customers do with.
And in between product overviews, the company discussed a few interesting conceptual things moving toward reality.
IBM, has for instance, reinvented the e-mail experience with Mail Next, a web-based client that integrates attention management and social into a view of communications that turns the traditional inbox inside out. Rather that concentrating on sequence, which is what most inboxes do by default, Mail Next concentrates on telling you what and who to concentrate on. Have we seen some of this thinking before? Sure. It’s probably most innovative because they plan to deliver it in 2014. We’ll see if they can beat other e-mail re-inventors like Contatta (with the collaborative e-mail concept) to market.
Mail Next Concept
IBM is also rebranding everything as Connections this-and-that. Other renaming and packaging is going on as well. I’m always confounded when a big company has a stake-in-the-ground like this annual conference and then announces works in progress on branding. Get the internal negotiations done and the product rationalization complete by the conference, because by next year, it will look old or be replaced by some other market packaging concept. That advice is good for Microsoft, Cisco, SAP and most other vendors of software and hardware. If you’re going to rebrand be sweeping and immediate. I know from experience it is hard, but I also know it is possible.
The other interesting item that struck me was the cloud-to-on-premise discussion about applications delivery and deployment in the future. IBM said they would take snap-shots of their rapidly evolving cloud applications from time-to-time, and release those snapshots as upgrades to on-premise enterprise customers. I think this is a brilliant way to integrate cloud-based rapid development models with enterprise software models. There is a however, which comes when talking about conservative enterprises that must test and validate software before they will deploy it, or those worried about change in general, and who don’t want to bring the Internet’s unannounced, nuanced, nearly daily tweaking into the corporate environment.
IBM still has too many products in the collaboration space with overlapping features. Sametime 9, includes chat. Connections includes chat. Same code base, but both still in the catalog. Years ago I saw a demo of a realtime to asynchronous conversation concept, coded and working in the IBM labs. That concept is still not in the product. While it is possible to retain transcripts of previous conversations from chat, that is very different proposition than moving a realtime conversation to an asynchronous conversation. It is crucially important going forward that all vendors who purport that social-based collaboration is their future, clearly message, and then demonstrate, the ability to consolidate communications channels, ideally with malleable, editable and transformable universal posts. The future of collaboration should be based on communication mode not product.
To be fair, the IBM SmartCloud Engage moves toward integration, but for existing customers and those looking for various pieces to supplement or complement other systems, the collaboration portfolio remains deep and still requires guidance and knowledge to create integrated experiences. Although many enterprises would benefit from a migration to a more modern, unified collaboration environment, It is highly unlikely that they will switch wholesale to SmartCloud Engage anytime soon.
Finally, The Cloud. At times these sessions sound more like those from a meteorology convention than they do a technology convention. Let’s be clear, The Cloud, in this case, is the term for IBM collaboration and social software running hardware in an IBM Data Center and delivered via a web browser or mobile client. When IBM says The Cloud they mean something fundamentally different, at the software level, from what Microsoft or Amazon mean when they say The Cloud. The point being that saying The Cloud, is pretty meaningless without understanding IBM’s “cloud” architecture, like where, on what, with which security, managed by whom, etc. This morning (January, 28 2014) USA Today ran a story about crumbling trust on the Internet (Trust in the Internet is Crumbling) amid government leaks and holiday hacks. Although IBM talks about security in their presentations, they have a real market opportunity to offer their services as trusted services, with means talking about their “cloud” in a less abstract way.
On the delivery front, IBM’s “cloud” doesn’t feel all that cloudy to those of us used to getting on a service within minutes and doing stuff. Buying IBM’s Cloud Connections, which I know exists because all the analysts where invited into it, isn’t as straight forward as it should be (you need to know that Connections isn’t the same as SmartCloud first of all, though it is roughly the same technology, the later, being in The Cloud). From the Smart Cloud page you can sign-up for trial. Here’s a direct link if you want to check it out. IBM does well in enterprises. They need to do well in SMB, and that means being part of the conversation and being easily found and easily purchased.
The other thing that struck me a Connect 2014 was how much the “I” in IBM is becoming “iOS.” With the hardware divestitures to Lenovo, IBM is free to deliver their solutions on whatever platforms make sense, and increasingly the choice is Apple’s iOS and open source, Google-supported, Android. IBM has a number of software client assets now available through mobile platforms, including Connections, Sametime, Notes Traveler Companion and Meetings. Hardware agnosticism has been good for IBM, forcing them into much larger, more consumer-facing ecosystems.
I haven’t been to Lotusphere, now Connect, for a number of years. It is always good to refresh relationships, have your ideas challenged by smart people and get introduced to new ideas. As much as IBM and others tout social software, this conference wouldn’t work virtually, ever. The value is in the people sharing the same experience. Knowing that keeps my feet grounded as to what can really be achieved with collaboration and social software.