Cognitive collaboration rules at IBM Connect 2017

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This week IBM hosted IBM Connect 2017, its annual customer and partner conference for its Collaboration Solutions division. Taking place in San Francisco for the first time, the conference had a different feel to previous years; after many years as a developer-centric gathering, IBM has spent the last few years trying to make it more appealing to business leaders. Strangely, this year seemed to shift back again slightly, with a more techy emphasis to both the opening general sessions (OGS), largely due to the growing focus on “cognitive” across the portfolio. Collaboration and work were still strongly present in the overriding themes of the OGS, but these were always underpinned by three major themes – cognitive, integration and partners. This year was also the first with new General Manager Inhi Cho Suh at the helm, and it was interesting to see her influence over both the product and business strategy, but also over the event itself, with a more practical, fluff-free approach.

The first point to note about the conference was that there wasn’t really any big news accompanying the event. We’re used to conferences like these being used to launch new products, new partnerships etc., but not this time. One argument for this is that it’s a side-effect of the shift to cloud-based services which roll out new features on a monthly basis, as opposed to big new version releases – but that’s not the complete story here. The Collaboration Services team had a major launch only four months ago with previews for IBM Watson Workspace and Watson Work Services, but this was announced at the IBM World of Watson analytics event. I wondered if we might see the next phase of this at IBM Connect, but apparently not – it looks like Watson Workspace won’t launch until the summer.

The only other potential “big news” topic was “Connections Pink”, which refers to the next version of IBM Connections, and which will see the platform completely rebuilt with a micro-service-based architecture, to improve its flexibility and API access, and to take advantage of Watson Work Services. It will also unify the code bases for both Connections on-prem and Connections Cloud – something that partners will be hugely grateful for. However, this news was largely glossed over in the keynote; there was a separate session, but unfortunately I had a clash so couldn’t make it. [I’ve been promised a follow-up on this, so will report back in due course.]

While there weren’t any major headlines, we did get updates on the various products in the portfolio – including Connections, Verse and Watson Workspace.

Connections

Despite it providing the name of the conference, Connections has taken a bit of a back seat over the last couple of years at the event, so it was nice to see it back on main stage this year. I’ve mentioned Connections Pink already, but IBM demoed some of the forthcoming features, including “Orient Me” – a new card-based home page which leverages analytics to show new community content that is relevant to me – which will be available next month. Other new features include a new onboarding experience, which guides new users through the process of setting up their Connections environment including completing their profile, and also enhancements to the communities experience in general, enabling greater customisation flexibility. The next on-premise version of Connections – version 6.0 – is expected within the next couple of quarters.

Verse

Verse was the big story at last year’s IBM Connect, and by contrast it held a much less prominent position this year. However, there were a few new announcements, including calendar delegation which is coming mid-year, and also updates to the Verse editor, and to antispam features for both admins and end-users. We will also see a further injection of the Watson cognitive capabilities in Verse, augmenting the Inbox capabilities to proactively suggest which items you need to respond to, for example, learning from your habits and behaviours and adapting over time.

Watson Workspace

As the newest product in the portfolio, this was – not surprisingly – the most frequently mentioned product, and it’s clear that the thinking that’s gone into developing this is having an impact across the portfolio. The application remains in preview (i.e. pre-beta, and invitation-only), but new features are being released on an ongoing basis; since I published my blog A peek into IBM Watson Workspace a couple of weeks ago, direct messaging and @mentions have been enabled, along with emojis and a few enhancements to “moments”, the mobile app, and the overall navigation.

However, the place where IBM really wants to differentiate Watson Workspace is in the way it integrates third-party applications and processes into spaces. The company announced a raft of additional integrations that are forthcoming, notably Sapho and Workato, both of which enable integration with multiple enterprise applications. Of course, IBM is still a long way behind Slack here in terms of the breadth of integrations available, but the company is clear that this is where it sees customers getting value from Watson Workspace, not just as a messaging platform, but as a way to create line-of-business or vertical industry-specific solutions through the vehicle of spaces. That these can also natively leverage the cognitive capabilities of Watson Work Services makes it an even more interesting proposition, and there was a lot of interest from the developer and partner audience around this.

Another new area of discussion which falls more under Watson Work Services is the topic of cognitive bots. Anyone familiar with Slack will expect to see bots in the Watson Workspace story, but the cognitive capabilities of Watson put a differentiating spin on them for IBM. Interestingly this capability is already becoming more pervasive across the IBM Collaboration Solutions portfolio, with examples of how bots and chatbots might be surfaced in Verse, Connections and Sametime, as well as in third-party solutions like Cisco Spark, to provide more contextual, conversational access to enterprise application data, for example.

While there was lots of discussion about Watson Workspace and Watson Work Services, information on eventual packaging and pricing is still thin on the ground. IBM is planning to maintain a free version of Workspace alongside a paid version to encourage a viral take-up, but will also be selling it through its existing collaboration sales channels. One of the things I was hoping to see more of was how Workspace would be positioned in the context of the other tools; IBM steered clear of pigeon-holing Workspace, instead emphasising choice for organisations in terms of the tools they used for particular business needs. This approach makes sense in the context of providing a solutions- rather than products-based approach to selling, though this is not something the company has been great at to date – I know it is something IBM wants to change, however.

Given the event’s history, it probably isn’t a surprise that Notes/Domino also made an appearance; for all the snorts that those outside the Lotus-loyal might give, there remain a lot of businesses that are still wedded to their Domino applications, and want reassurance that amidst the excitement of newer products, this staple of their business is not forgotten. Ed Brill reiterated that support would continue until at least 2021, and Verse is now available for Domino. Interestingly, IBM has also teamed up with partner Panagenda to help organisations get a better handle on their use of Notes and Domino; Panagenda’s analytics solution for the platform (which I believe will be available for free through the support program) shows how and where they are using Notes databases, for example, allowing organisations to streamline their environments and (this being quite important from IBM’s perspective, of course) plan their next move, perhaps to the cloud.. Either way, better visibility of usage is always a valuable thing.

So, despite initial concerns that there wasn’t any BIG news, there was actually lots of little news, and I found it a very interesting couple of days. As always, I would have liked to have attended more (any!) customer sessions, though what there was focused more on the established products like Connections, rather than the newer ones, of course. There seems to be a lot of momentum at IBM – certainly there have been lots of leadership changes over the last year – and there’s lots of potential.. The key will be how well IBM is able to market and sell the great technologies it’s working on. There’s opportunity there, definitely.

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