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.
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