Can Cisco Crack the Code for Video? Do They Need To?
Earlier this month, Cisco had their Collaboration Business Update briefing for analysts, and there were some interesting takeaways I think are worth sharing with our readers; not just for what Cisco has in mind for UC&C, but also where they are focusing for growth. Cisco has been making some big moves recently, and whether you’re a channel or a technology buyer, these cannot be ignored. As analysts, we hear both technology and business-level messages, and Cisco looks for us to reflect our conclusions back to the market. On that note, I have a takeaway for each of the two themes cited above.
Is Cisco showing the way for UC&C?
Before addressing that, a bigger question looms here, namely is the UC space lagging the needs of the market? All of us at UCStrategies struggle with the challenge of framing the UC value proposition in a way that is universally understood. No two UC vendors offer the exact same solution, IT decision makers have trouble making a solid business case, and channels still face a knowledge gap moving on from phone systems as well as supporting cloud-based offerings.
When you add all this up, UC becomes something you either get right away, or triggers a conversation where the longer it takes to explain, the more complicated it sounds and the less likely there will be a sale. We all know how strong Cisco is in the UC space, and how they have been at the forefront of changing the narrative from UC to UC&C.
Fair enough, but you’d never know it from our briefing call about Cisco’s “Collaboration Business.” The update was presented by rising star – and fellow Torontonian – Rowan Trollope, who I think has a very good handle on what success is going to look like in this space. Our session was hosted on the new WebEx platform, in which every subscriber has a Personal Meeting Room with a dedicated URL (for that, we have IPv6 to thank!).
On that note, if you think about each employee now having their own URL to support WebEx, it’s really no different than having an extension on the IP PBX – and of course, that’s the point – to make video the hub of everyday communication instead of the desk phone.
The new WebEx user experience was very good, with Rowan noting the investment they’ve made in industrial design, and it’s clear that Cisco sees no shame in taking a page from Apple’s ease-of-use playbook. No qualms there, but a few points regarding whether or not Cisco is showing the way for UC&C:
All of us at UCStrategies are hard-wired to pick up the UC term on our radar, and I don’t recall Rowan saying “UC” once. He said “collaboration” a lot, but didn’t talk about how the tools he was demonstrating specifically make collaboration better. My sense is that effective collaboration is implied, simply because the new WebEx experience is so good. This puts the onus squarely on the end user to figure out how to collaborate, but without the broader context of WebEx being within a UC environment, I’m not exactly sure that’s going to happen. Collaboration means different things to different people, but in my view, it should be richer when wrapped around UC.
Notice how I haven’t defined what the new WebEx is yet – and that was really the whole focus of Cisco’s briefing. Rowan took great care to explain how this experience is not web conferencing, and nor is it video conferencing – “it’s just conferencing.” Cisco has gotten over the idea that immersive telepresence will never become the standard, and they are intent on finding another way to get meeting rooms video-enabled. Based on this, you’d be correct to conclude that for Cisco, video is the big driver for collaboration. Not surprisingly, we never heard a peep about phones or IP PBXs – that’s just not in the UC conversation these days.
That’s the vision, but the reality is still way behind. Cisco has selfish reasons for video to become “pervasive” – it’s bandwidth-intensive and drives up demand for network gear – but the market hasn’t followed suit yet. As user-friendly as the SX-10 is, it hasn’t yet become a game-changer. Rowan talked about this early on, saying that “even with a 45% price drop, the light bulb still didn’t go off.” Clearly, the market still thinks video is too expensive, but there’s more to it. If the price drop didn’t do the trick – and if the experience is really good – there must be something else in the way. Well, anybody on that call could see the answer right away.
Rowan is an engaging, passionate speaker, but for most of the update, we just watched him speak from his desk. Even John Chambers gets a little dull when things are so static. This is not a setting where video adds much value, and that became even clearer when the flip side of the bargain was put to the test. Part of the new WebEx experience is to make video interactive for everyone, and we were all encouraged to be in video mode so Rowan could see us. There were a few dozen analysts on the conference (see, I’m using the right language now!), but based on the status settings, only a handful had video enabled. I was part of that no-video majority, although I did go into video mode later during the Q&A. Some of this is a generational thing, and I’d say we have a long to go until everyone feels totally ok about being on video for these sessions.
So, is Cisco showing the way for collaboration, or merely trying to steer it on a course that’s good for business? I think it’s both, and that’s partly based on where they’re going with the cloud. Before getting to that, though, it looks like Cisco is now advocating a video-driven path to collaboration, but one where UC doesn’t loom large (and that seems at odds with their UC&C focus). If they’re right, the other UC players may have to re-think things. On the other hand, if end users don’t engage intuitively with a video-driven “conferencing” session, I don’t think it matters how many UC applications you tie this to – there won’t be much high-level collaboration taking place.
Regardless of which position you support – and for now, it’s the latter for me – Cisco views the meeting room as a huge Greenfield opportunity – only 7% have video – and this new “conferencing” solution is the best way to become a force there. On this basis, WebEx sounds more like a point product than the integrated solution that UC vendors tout. That can be a bit confusing to buyers, and for channels there’s another rub. Rowan acknowledged the race to zero with video and that soon enough it will be free, even in enterprise environments. Well, then, how is the channel going to make money selling this flavor of collaboration?
Is this really about Intercloud?
That’s been the latest big buzzword, and Cisco is investing heavily to gain leadership status here. Intercloud (also spelled InterCloud, nee Cisco Fusion) is about making it easy for businesses to go hybrid and get the right mix of public and private cloud infrastructure. All UC&C vendors are worried about the likes of Google and Amazon for their cloud plans, and it’s no surprise that Cisco has been recruiting talent from Amazon Web Services to accelerate their market entry.
Video-based collaboration is a key driver of real time communication that is best supported by the horsepower in the cloud. On that basis, Intercloud can be a great way for Cisco to keep their enterprise customers, especially as they move away from premise-based infrastructure, and as they increasingly require Big Data capabilities to make decisions. Of course, this ties in seamlessly with IoT/IoE, another driver for Cisco’s roadmap. In that world, they can still do well with video being free – the real money will be made from managing all the data coming out of collaboration sessions, and that’s why Cisco wants to own the meeting room environment.
By now I’m sure you’ve noticed how UC is conspicuous by its absence. Cisco may not need it for collaboration to serve their bigger picture needs. They are certainly aiming high, and for Cisco, cracking the code with video isn’t about making money – it’s about owning the meeting room and making WebEx the hub of conferencing for everything. Of course, that’s a different code to crack, but it might be the one that matters the most if and when the cloud overtakes everything.