IBM’s Mail Next looks like the first social email

IBM is involved in a major reboot of its positioning and architecture for work tech. The mail, chat, meetings, office tools, and content management have all been pulled under the IBM Connections banner going forward.

All of that might have just been marketing propaganda wrapped around a long, long, demo at IBM Connect  until I got a glimpse of something that might be a game changer for the company and the industry. They provided a look — and not a very long one — at IBM Connections Mail Next.

First of all, email has lost its ‘e’, and is apparently just called mail. I guess that means old mail has to be proceded with ‘surface’ or ‘snail’ from now on.

Second of all, Next Mail looks like the social email I have been writing about for a long time:

Stowe Boyd, Somewhere, someone is building the successor to email, and it is social

Imagine a social tool in which an ongoing email thread — for example with a business customer or prospect — could be treated as a social object, like a document with several sections. Social email users could share that object with others in their workgroup, for example, annotating the thread, and assigning someone in the group to follow-up with the customer. In a sense this would be treating email as the lowest common communication channel — one that doesn’t require adoption of some new tool — while the workgroup would be communicating among themselves at the highest common communication channel: a social coordinative tool in which email is content, not context.

I wrote about last year’s (much more minimal) minimal news from IBM Connect 2013, where I spoke with Ed Brill about my vision, and he said it wasn’t on IBM’s plans:

Stowe Boyd, IBM’s idea of social email is email in context, not email made social

I described that model of social email to Ed Brill, Director, Product Line Management,IBM Collaboration Solutions, and the author of Opting In: Lessons in Social Business from a Fortune 500 Product Manager. I had  seen a demo of the new email plugin for IBM Connections, which basically just pulls email into the Connections context, and I was wondering if they have more in mind.

Brill: are you looking for a job in product management?

Boyd: No, I’m not. I’m just confabulating a product I would like to see exist so I can use it.

Brill: It’s not our line of thinking. It all logically sounds like things we should be doing when we talk about a social mail experience. We’re talking about a blend of context where email is not some separate thing from the other tools you are using in the context of a social business: business tools. Not Twitter or Facebook, but corporate versions of the microblog, wikis, and community tools.  That’s where we blend things together.

Boyd: So now when I’m in Connections, that’s my social context. And now I have a pull down menu of email functionality, so I can respond to it in the Connections context rather than shift context, leaving Connections. That’s all well and good, but it hasn’t made email social.

Brill: The next step of that is on a longer time horizon. I want the context to be recognized when you click on the inbox, and not just show you the first-in-first-out sequence [of email]. Instead, say you are in the community of a specific project, and the request would show all the activity that is relevant to the project, or if you are looking at the activity for the 4 o’clock marketing meeting it would access the people invited to the meeting, and show recent emails from those people.

Boyd: It’s a different use case but I can see that being extremely useful.

Brill: That what we plan to bite off first; although, I like your scenario, too.

So IBM is tending to use ‘social email’ to mean — today — allowing users access to email when in a social context, like IBM Connections. But, as Ed outlined, they plan to expand that context to be more of a contextual search, so that a request to display email would fetch email that is contextual relevant. And so 00 to be generous — if the relevant context is ‘social’, as in Ed’s examples, then that could be considered ‘social’, after a fashion. But I think it would better be called contextual email, and we can reserve the notion of social email for the more elaborate use cases, like the one I outlined.

Mail Next might be that product. And maybe they should have given me that product manager job.

Here’s a few screenshots and an attempt to explain what I think I saw.

IBM Mail Dashboard

At the top you see avatars that represent the individuals who sent emails waiting in the inbox, and the count of emails. Next you see events from the integrated calendar, and at the bottom emails awaiting action.

And here, when one of the emails is selected, the email thread is depicted at the foot of the most recent email, with the identity of each email’s sender. And then to the right, you see how the email can be moved over into ‘Forum Topic’ and shared as a social object with the ‘General Community’.

IBM Mail Next Community Content

I will have to see if that is what in fact the demo in fact showed, but if it did this is the first social email application, long-awaited and long-overdue.