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the more essential it is, the less passionate we are

Category musings
As I am wont to do, I will be resorting in this post to analogies that make it easier for me to wrap my head around complex abstract ideas but ultimately distract from what I'm attempting to convey, trusting to your capacity to peer through the haze of metaphor and gauge whether anything of substance lies beyond.

Nearly all of us know at least one individual who is passionate about food. Most of us also know at least one person who is passionate about some form of drinking. Do you know anyone who is passionate about breathing? If so, are you ever tempted to write them off as "a bit odd"?

At least once a month, you must eat. At least once a week, you must drink. But go more than a couple minutes without breathing, and — unless you're David Blaine — the most likely result will be brain death. These are just cold, hard, facts. And yet, if you give me an enjoyable dining experience, it's likely that I'll remember it, and possibly even tell a few friends that "oh my goodness, you have to try this restaurant"... but improve my air quality by 20%, and I probably won't even notice.

I was recently in Orlando for a few days. I wasn't attending the IBM Connect conference (and no, this wasn't an act of rebellion on my part, just an attempt to balance some personal and professional priorities), but most of the people I was there to visit were. And quite a few of them were tweeting on Monday morning about something being referred to as "Mail Next". The reaction was very mixed. One sentiment I saw expressed by many was relief that IBM was acknowledging that email isn't dead.

Of course it isn't. Email is essential.

Some have learned to go without it entirely, and, frankly, I applaud them. But almost any time I hear any discussion of an individual or organization who has completely eliminated email, it's framed as though that is an act of rebellion. It's very counter-culture — hipster, if you will — to be at "Inbox Zero" indefinitely.

Admittedly, I'm fairly close to that. In an average day, I get maybe two to three work-related emails. In an average week, I get maybe two to three personal emails. I haven't explicitly instructed people not to email me. Perhaps I've sent non-verbal signals that somehow discourage others from contacting me via email. Whatever the reason, email remains absolutely necessary for me, but how could I possibly be passionate about anything that makes email "better"?

Conversely, the bulk of my professional communication is siloed not to my email account, but rather to applications.

Tangentially professional is my participation on stackoverflow. As one way of giving back to the platform, and community, that pays my bills, I try to answer at least one to two questions a week. But I also comment on questions that I don't officially "answer". All of that communication is, therefore, contextual. And, months, or even years, later, people I never directly interact with can view that communication without hacking into my email account.

Arguably the largest persistent store of communication between me and those with whom I currently interact professionally takes the form of commit logs within source code management systems (e.g. git, Mercurial, etc.). At the end of most weeks, in fact, this is how I know what to put on my timesheet: I open up SourceTree and, in addition to the long-term value of being able to see how a given piece of software took shape, it also reminds me of what I was doing the past few days... and, in full candor, if I weren't tracking that somewhere, I couldn't possibly remember.

Additionally, some of my customers use project management systems. While I do receive email notifications from some of those systems, I don't include those messages in the approximated statistic I previously mentioned... because the only purpose of these messages is to alert me to new communication that resides in that context, so I typically delete those messages within a few minutes of having received them. A push notification on my phone, which disappears the instant I acknowledge having seen it, would have achieved the same goal: I know there's something somewhere else that I should look at, so I do. Once I have, the notification itself has served its purpose and does not need to persist.

Admittedly, if my email account (or software) evolved to somehow pull all of this into a single place, a single window into the process-contextual applications wherein I truly collaborate with others... okay, yeah, I might get a bit excited about that. And, if I'm correctly interpreting what I've read and heard (absent the full context of the conference, which may have shed additional light on the intended direction), this might be precisely what "Mail Next" will attempt to become.

If it does, it's no longer mail.

I recently made a statement that seemed to resonate with a few people:

"In the real world, an excess of email is always evidence of an immature app ecosystem."

Here's what I meant by that: if you're receiving (or sending) hundreds of email messages a day, or even just dozens, that's because there's no other mechanism in place that feels easier, more instinctive, and more effective for facilitating that communication. Conversely, if you have the "right" apps in place — apps that each target a specific business process and / or community — the only value that email can possibly provide is to further facilitate interaction with those apps. Ergo, the more valuable your email is, the less mature your app ecosystem must be.

Why am I droning on and on about this? Because I am simultaneously dismayed and encouraged. For far too long, I've felt that IBM doesn't grasp the significance of an app ecosystem to a well-functioning organization. I've often attributed this to their sheer size: like Grawp in corporate form, they mean well but simply can't comprehend how to interact normally with any creature that isn't also enormous. But more recently I've also attributed this to the comparative difficulty of selling potential vs. the ease of selling actual. Imagine yourself as the salesperson in the following exchange (pun intended):

"You should buy our email platform."
"I know what email is. We already have email."
"Ours is better."
"Oh, okay. Here's a large stack of cash."

Now try selling apps:

"You should buy our custom app development platform."
"What does it do?"
"It lets you build apps."
"Like what?"
"Um... well, anything you want."
"Okay... like what?"
"Well, imagine any app you might want to create, and our platform will let you make that happen."
"I don't have an imagination."
"Oh... crap. I don't either. You should buy our email platform."

I'm not saying that's what actually happens when IBM tries to sell Domino... but I assume that it's more difficult to convey the value of something that lets you do anything you can imagine than it would be to convey the value of something that only takes the shape of something all of us already recognize — and, therefore, we don't need to imagine because we can, instead, simply remember. Even if you were to provide some examples of truly valuable apps that your platform enables customers to deploy, you risk giving the impression that this is all the platform can do.

So I can sympathize with the temptation to cling to an obsession with email and focus on improving its value in an attempt to make what must already be an easier sale than selling a custom app platform even easier. But the way in which they seem to be pursuing that improvement risks revealing the truth about email: it no longer matters — or, at least in the context of professional collaboration, it shouldn't. If it does, you're missing some apps. If "Mail Next" is awesome, therefore, it's because those apps do exist, and instead of a traditional inbox, you now have something that makes it easier to use those apps.

In short, without the apps, it's still just email. If customers have nothing to pull in to that central context, the improvement is incremental at best. There's nothing here to get passionate about.

So what's the good news? While many were so impressed with what they did see that they just assumed it would no longer be on Domino (running, presumably, on some flavor of Websphere instead), that's apparently not the case. In a sense, this would become the new iNotes. But a rumor I've heard is that Domino as it exists today can't even do everything it would need to do for Mail Next as currently proposed to even function within Domino. This implies that Domino is about to get better again. It's been getting better at a far faster rate than it used to, and that's awesome. And if Mail Next is the sales catalyst that gives the programmability folks the leverage to implement some awesome features that can, in turn, be used by app developers to create even more powerful functionality than we already can, huzzah.

But what I'm even more excited about is the likelihood that IBM actually does realize all of this, that they've learned the lesson that, by all appearances, is still lost on BlackBerry: superior messaging is insuffcient to maintain market share. You need passionate customers. And passionate customers have a thriving app ecosystem. This is what IBM will be most heavilly focused on as Domino, SameTime, Mail Next, and what we already know of as Connections, all just become Connections. It will become easier than ever for custom app developers to give IBM's customers an app ecosystem that fosters the passion that ensures that the IBM collaboration software stack plays an integral role in those customers' long-term success, because this is IBM's number one priority for the future of that software stack. This needs to be true, so I choose to believe that it is.


Gravatar Image1 - I agree that all I want from mail is notification message containing a link.
But I keep hearing sales weasels promote systems that let you "handle this right in your inbox", which to me is insane. How am I going to have the context needed to make a proper decision in my inbox?
In other words, too many people that ought to know better think that it is a great inconvenience to have to click that link.

Gravatar Image2 - The theory behind "embedded experiences" is that you would see the full context within the message window. So instead of linking off to a purchase request, for instance, you'd just be there when you open the message. You'd see the full request in your email, which would give you as much context as if you had clicked a link to the request, or opened the request from within the application that contains it. Unless you need to reference other content within that parent application, therefore, you would (again, theoretically) have sufficient information to take action without leaving your inbox. I've seen a few demos of this that have convinced me this could be very useful... so much so that (in my opinion), the more extensively this is used, the more it would call attention to the comparative uselessness of raw email -- messages that have no context of their own, or even worse, take on a life of their own by becoming long discussion threads that only exist within the participants' inboxes.

Gravatar Image3 - This sounds about right: "they mean well but simply can't comprehend how to interact normally with any creature that isn't also enormous."

Gravatar Image4 - Interesting views, Tim. It makes more sense now that you've explained it as opposed to how I viewed your statement without this context. Thanks...

Gravatar Image5 - "This needs to be true, so I choose to believe that it is."

That is a very dangerous methodology, my friend. I'm not saying IBM is or isn't doing any particular thing, but leaping to an is from an ought is even more treacherous than going the other way around.

Gravatar Image6 - "...or even worse, take on a life of their own by becoming long discussion threads that only exist within the participants' inboxes."

LOL. Inspired idea: an Embedded Experience for email thread chains that converted them to a proper forum discussion.

It'd be a bitch of a parser, but if you managed to get it right even 90% of the time, I bet it would be a killer feature.