Over 100 billion work e-mails are exchanged each day, but research suggests that only around a quarter of those are actually essential. IBM hopes to lighten that load. Later this month the company will open up a trial of a new online e-mail service called Verse, which uses algorithms to work out which messages and people are most important to you.
After Verse is launched as a product sometime this spring, IBM plans to add a personal assistant powered by the Watson software that beat two human Jeopardy! champions in 2011. The finished version of the service will be free for personal or small-business use, but larger companies will have to pay, depending on data usage and the number of users.
Gmail and some other systems also scan the content of e-mails to help you manage your messages. But while Gmail is most focused on separating “human” e-mail from automated messages sent by companies, Verse takes on the harder task of understanding which messages from other people are most important or urgent.
Verse combines an e-mail client, a digital calendar, internal collaboration tools, video chat, and content from social networks including Twitter and Facebook into one interface. It analyzes your communication patterns to try to understand which people matter to you most. It then highlights important e-mails accordingly. A toolbar provides one-click access to the latest messages from the people judged to be your most crucial contacts. (The user can override Verse’s decisions about which contacts are important.)
“Instead of your trying to track the endless flood of e-mail coming down your screen, we have the system present who I should be focusing on,” says Kramer Reeves, IBM’s director of collaboration solutions.
Chris Schmandt, who directs the Living Mobile Lab at the MIT Media Lab, points out that Verse is entering a crowded field. The pervasive and slippery problem of managing e-mail has inspired many research projects and products over the years. Besides Google’s Gmail, there are systems that allow a sender to embed an action or task into messages for recipients to agree to or perform within a set time frame.
“All these work to some degree. But all fail to some degree,” says Schmandt. And he thinks it will be tough for IBM’s Verse to avoid the same fate.
For one thing, the types of messages that are most important to a person can change from day to day or week to week, says Schmandt, who has not tried Verse for himself. IBM says Verse can handle that because it is “aware of your role in the company.” But Schmandt is skeptical, noting that people tend to take on multiple, shifting roles as they work on projects, deal with clients, and use e-mail for their social life.
“It is very hard to learn, for example, that I always want to speak with my brother, even if we e-mail only infrequently,” says Schmandt. “Do we say my boss is important even though he is an infrequent e-mailer? Or are the colleagues, perhaps [direct] reports, and even interns with whom I communicate daily more important?”
Still, Schmandt says that from the limited view he has had, Verse appears to have an appealing visual interface. “Ease of use is essential in attracting people to new communication technologies,” he says.
IBM plans to add the Watson-based personal assistant to Verse soon after the product launches, around the end of March this year. An employee will be able to do things like send a message asking Watson to schedule a meeting with a list of contacts. The assistant would then send out invitations to the relevant parties. Another possible feature would advise when an e-mail you are drafting appears to have the wrong tone—for example, appearing hostile, defensive, or uncertain.