For the first time in 7 years, I’m missing the annual IBM ‘collaboration and social business’ conference in Orlando.
Sadly this has also coincided with the conference being ‘down-sized’ somewhat and thus being deprived of the live video-streaming and playback support that it has had for the past 3-5 years. I’ve therefore been watching the event through the somewhat murky and confusing lenses of Twitter and PlanetLotus. This has most likely led me to more than a few misconceptions or confusions on the content shared over 4,000 miles away.
However, that said, here are my thoughts so far:
- That there is a conference at all this year is a major testament to the efforts of many truly committed folks at IBM and in the community. They have had to pull out all the stops to get the ‘powers that be’ to cover the cost and risk of running the event, and then completed far more of the tasks themselves than in previous years when they would have been outsourced to other agencies. Kudos to them for making this happen. All my comments below should be taken in the context that I am darned impressed they’ve achieved what they have.
- The rebrand to IBMConnectED (from IBM Connect and before that Lotusphere) has confused many. Watching Twitter over the past few days, I’ve seen a good number of questions from those not present asking about the scope of the conference, the level of content (technical versus business), the audience that was invited and so on. Given the general consensus so far, I’m not sure that the ‘much more technical’ target has been met, and thus perhaps the additional rebrand was a little unnecessary – however, maybe there were political reasons why this change needed to happen?
- That said, the attendance is said to have exceeded expectations, and perhaps even to have exceeded the ambitions of those on the organising team. Early on, a number of 1,500 attendees had been mentioned, and I’ve now heard that a large number of late (or even, on-site) registrations have taken the attendance past 2,200 people. This is an amazing success and should be applauded.
However, when one plans a conference around one audience size and you get 1.5x that number arrive, it obviously puts pressure on the arrangements and compromises that were made for the original plan. It sounds as though the TechnOasis is very tight for space, the welcome party was somewhat under-catered and that there have been a few issues getting into packed sessions. These are understandable issues and I’m sure that most attendees (and sponsors) would trade some minor inconvenience in these areas for having a vibrant, well-attended conference.
- This (perhaps unexpected) success has lead to some discussions around the future of this event and I’ve heard more than a few whispers that IBM has an open mind on the future of ‘Lotusphere’ after 2015, and might be convinced to continue the conference in the future should it be a commercially viable venture. I sincerely hope that this is the case. It has a vibe entirely unlike any other event I’ve ever attended, and for the sake of the community that has built up around these products and solutions, I really do want this not to be ‘the final goodbye’. We’ll see what gets announced at the closing session.
- As the January event has always been the number one marketing effort for ICS throughout the entire year, the news made here has to make a splash around the world. Whilst this may change as part of the consolidation into the Vegas based events, I do think that at least for 2015, IBM has to ensure that the impact of the content shared in Orlando is a big one. Clearly a big part of this is IBM educating the analysts and press, and I’m sure they’ll be doing this as well as ever (I’ve taken part in a number of press programs at this event in the past, and have always been impressed with the way they’ve been delivered). However, from my perspective, particularly given my position this year, the event must have a footprint that extends beyond the Swan and Dolphin complex. For me that means:
- Live streaming – I can understand that budget was likely an issue this year. However if I had been asked, I would have suggested that streaming at least the main-room sessions was absolutely essential. Heck, that could have come down to just an immediately uploaded Youtube recording of the OGS if truly necessary, but really there should have been no way that even a 1,500 user conference should have been cut off from the rest of the interested audience. I’ve long held (and shared) the opinion that session recordings and presentations are IBM’s best promotional materials for this conference. For me, it is madness that the fantastic news from the OGS yesterday didn’t make it out unedited to the rest of the world.
News summaries of the key OGS announcements – I made this point last year. ICS misses Ed Brill most of all during the week of this event. If you were to trawl back through the archives of his blog, you’ll see that January always saw upwards of 50+ blog posts, mostly during and soon after Lotusphere week. As a blogger attending the event, I could always be sure that immediately following the OGS we’d have a handful of insightful pre-written posts detailing what was shown, what would be delivered and how it would impact users of the software. In the past couple of years, we’ve come away from the OGS thinking, yeah that was exciting and well-produced, but with little in terms of real details, dates or feature lists. I know that this will likely come in the breakout sessions at the event, but not everyone onsite can attend all these sessions, and of course those that aren’t there have even less to go on.
- Press releases – Nothing that was announced yesterday at the event was deemed worthy of an IBM press release. Again, whilst the press on-site will have been briefed, the rest of the world’s media (and bloggers) will be left uneducated about the news.
- In summary, I find this ‘you have to be here’ approach to be unfathomable for such a well-organised event run by a multi-national tech vendor.
- The actual news from the OGS as I could glean from the tweets, Facebook posts, photos and Skype chats that I followed was really positive in a number of areas:
- The IBM Verse demos looked really fantastic. I’ve been honoured to be involved in some of the beta testing for the product and so have used some earlier iterations of the platform. However, what was shown yesterday was a massive step forward in terms of usability and UI polish. The integration with Connections looked very powerful, and the omnipresent Calendar bar at the base of the display had many Tweeters commenting on how useful that would be in their daily work-lives. I’m hearing that Scott Souder’s presentation and demo went incredibly well, and it’s clear that the community both likes and respects his approach.
- I love the idea that Verse will be available as a Freemium service, and will be open to anyone to use as the client for their email. I’m not sure how the greater IBM will get their heads around this as an offering, and there is previous for free products from IBM (Symphony etc.) being folded when they don’t become commercially self-sustaining. The biggest question I have though is how IBM will advertise and market Verse to the world. As we all know ‘build it and they will come’ is a sure route to failure, so they do have to find a way to win mindshare in startups and small-businesses. IBM Verse has to somehow be considered alongside Office365 and Google Apps – a challenge.
I still have some concerns about Verse, primarily that IBM’s ‘New Way to Work’ message risks over-promising and under-delivering on what is effectively a new UI for iNotes. I do think that a ‘New Way to Work’ is absolutely needed, but don’t think that this means email, in any form. That’s not to say that I don’t think it will be a mighty fine mail client and productivity tool, but I think that that are other vendors out there that are making similar strides forward on mail management (thinking about Google Inbox and Dropbox’s MailBox app in particular). At the end of the day, it is still email, and my position is that whilst any improvement in the management of ones email load is important, we need to be shifting away from email at a personal and organisational level.
My other small concern is that I find ‘web mail’ in whatever format really difficult to manage – particularly when shifting from web research to mail or and back again. I mentioned this on Twitter yesterday and the advice was to use pinned browser tabs or even a separate browser altogether. However, I find that what works best for me (and for many users I meet) is a separate app for email/calendar/to-dos (that’s currently Mailbox/BusyCal/Todoist in my world, but could be Notes or Outlook), even if this is just a lightweight container that renders the web views (think of MailPlane for GMail). I’d love to hear how IBM plans to deal with this for its own internal users – will all 300,000+ IBM mail users be expected to have a browser tab open all day for them to access their mail?
- On the other hand, IBM Connections Next looked awesome, really really great. The new Verse-inspired UI looked fantastic, and is a credit to IBM’s renewed focus on ‘design-thinking’. In addition, the features that Luis Benitez demonstrated were really well received – not least the new and reimagined Homepage and Community Overview elements. We also heard of many planned enhancements to the IBM Connections Cloud SaaS platform – primarily to bring it up to feature parity with the on-premises release. It’s clearly a case of further evolution rather than the revolution that we’re seeing in Verse, but given IBM’s position in the ESN space, that’s no surprise. I really look forward to getting hold of some of the deeper-dive roadmap presentations to find out more. (One feature I am not keen but I know others will adore is that we’ll finally have full nested folders in Connections later this year!)
- IBM plans to release a separate paid file sync tool based on Connections that will compete with Dropbox and Box. This is another good step into the ‘general tech utility’ space – a tool that doesn’t require an entire enterprise to buy into it in order to return demonstrable value.
- As far as I could tell from the Twitter coverage, there was very little mention of Notes, Domino (apart from it’s integration into BlueMix) or Sametime in the OGS. I’m sure that this will disappoint many, but surprise few.
- There was one significant omission as far as I am concerned:
One of the major stories of the past year has been the rise and rise of Slack and it’s contemporaries in the Social Communications space. These lightweight mobile chat platforms have rapidly grown in scope and popularity, and it’s now very unusual for me to meet a customer that doesn’t have at least one of these tools in use in a department or job function around the business. It’s not just Slack either – think of Hipchat (from Atlassian), Flowdock and Hall, all of which are doing well. Also, Cisco has launched Webex Project Squared, and Jive is working on Chime, both of which will compete in this area. All have dynamic mobile apps and most have lightweight desktop apps for OS X and Windows. I’m seeing these platforms compete with (and beat) solutions in both the ESN and IM categories.
- In the IBM world, we’re still looking at the complex Sametime platform on-premises, or the more limited (though still complex) hosted variant. To get efficient persistent group chat functionality you would need Sametime Advanced. At the client level, we’re working with the 1 gigabyte (!) install that is the Eclipse-based rich client.
- I am surprised that we didn’t hear IBM responding to this threat with either a completely new cloud-based Social Communications platform, or else a substantial commitment to to improve IM and group chat in the Connections Cloud solution.
- As always, it sounds as though the social side of the conference has been as spectacular as always. People come and people go, but relationships built at previous events and maintained online tend to withstand change incredibly well.
As I stated at the top, all of the above has been gleaned from following the social media coverage and from speaking to trusted friends. What do you think? Do I have it right, or have I misjudged the conference as far as you’re concerned? I’d love to hear from you…