Cisco’s Project Squared – Get A Room
As you’ve probably heard by now, at its Collaboration Summit in Los Angeles, Cisco unveiled its new cloud-based collaboration tool, code named Project Squared (it’s unclear whether this will be the name when the service goes GA, or if it will be renamed).
According to Rowan Trollope, senior vice-president and general manager of Cisco’s collaboration technology group, Project Squared is a next-gen collaboration product for team-based collaboration, connecting real time with non-real time interactions. It’s an “order of magnitude better experience for the user,” which is reflected in its name. Squared is a “place for your stuff to live and for people to connect,” and enables teams to work together on shared files and projects, using tools such as messaging, video conferencing, document sharing, and more.
It uses a “room” concept, in that users set up rooms for interacting and collaborating with people, either one-on-one or with groups. Cisco took the physical room itself and put it into the phone, while adding persistence, making chats and interactions persistent and easy to find. The rooms are persistent, so when you go back in to a room, the conversations and content shared previously are still accessible.
Trollope noted that a collaboration solution like Project Squared “has to work with all the stuff you already have,” and that the wrong way to build a collaboration solution is to “build an island and make people leave the stuff they’re using and come to the island.” Project Squared was designed to work on the most pervasive platforms out there, notably web browsers and mobile apps, and to “take everything you used before and make it work better,” adding new experiences to existing solutions. Users access Squared through an HTML5-compatible web browser or a downloaded app on a desktop computer or smart mobile device (iOS and Android).
As opposed to consumer-grade solutions that may do similar things, Project Squared is secure and built for business, and based on the Cisco Collaboration Cloud. Jonathan Rosenberg, vice-president and chief technology officer of Cisco’s collaboration technology group, noted that security is essential, and that everything is encrypted in the client when it’s shared and unencrypted upon delivery on the client.
Integrating with other communication and collaboration tools, as well as business applications, is a key focus for Squared. It integrates with the user’s Outlook calendar and Active Directory, as well as with WebEx and Box, and there are APIs to enable integration with business applications.
The service is not yet generally available, and there is no set date for when it will be GA (I expect it to happen in the spring), and it’s clearly a work in progress. There are certainly some areas where the solution could be improved, and the development team has a long list of requests from customers and people trying out the service, some of which will be addressed by the time the service goes GA. For example, voice and video conferences are currently only supported in Firefox, and not in Chrome.
My Thoughts on Project Squared
Those of us in attendance at the Collaboration Summit had the opportunity to not only see live demos of Project Squared, but to try it out for ourselves to see how it works, and to also provide feedback to the developers. I found the service very easy to use, and I was able to start communicating with colleagues right away.
I especially appreciated the ease of inviting people to join a room, even if they’re not part of your organization or don’t have a Squared account. You simply press the plus sign in a room and enter the individual’s email address. They receive notification that they’ve been invited, and if they’re not already signed up with Squared, they set up an account in a matter of seconds, and are off and running. This breaks down the barrier of walled gardens that many other collaboration tools face, making it easy to collaborate with customers, partners, suppliers, or anyone else.
As mentioned, Squared is a work in progress, and the developers are working to address issues and add features that are requested by users. When trying out the service with several UCStrategies colleagues, we found that the usability varied based on which browser or device was being used. For some reason, on my Mac the service works better on Chrome than Firefox, but the voice and video capabilities are only available on Firefox. A four-party videoconference worked relatively well on my smartphone, but someone using a Chromebook wasn’t able to access the video.
Perhaps my biggest gripe about Project Squared is that it doesn't have presence awareness. While it’s easy to set up a videoconference with people in a room, you don’t necessarily know if those people are available for a conference. Cisco representatives note that Project Squared is persistent, and that every conversation and document that was shared remains in the room and is accessible, which diminishes the need for presence. I believe that presence is a big missing piece, and that it will be added once Cisco figures out the best way to do that (integration with Jabber, bringing Jabber into the Squared service, or some other solution).
Along those lines, the big question is whether Project Squared will become the user interface of choice, or will Cisco continue to support Jabber, WebEx, and other user interfaces. There’s a big overlap with Jabber, WebEx, Jive, and other solutions, and it’s not immediately evident where Squared fits. It’s not a social solution, yet there’s some overlap with Jive. It’s not a large group conferencing solution, yet there’s some overlap with WebEx, and it’s not a UC solution, yet there’s some overlap with Jabber.
Another issue is how to avoid information overload. While most “rooms” will be limited to project team members, if you have many rooms with many participants, the “noise” can get overwhelming each time someone posts something or makes a comment. Within a couple hours of using Squared, I had four group rooms, and six private rooms (for one-on-one interactions). My iPhone was constantly buzzing, as you get notified every time someone adds a comment or joins room. It’s easy to “mute” the room to eliminate the constant notifications, but the issue of overload will have to be addressed.
From the channel partner perspective, the big question is how they will make money on Squared. The service will initially be available as a “freemium” service, providing a core set of capabilities, including instant messaging, video conferencing, document sharing, and video sharing. Like other services based on a freemium model, expect to see a premium model that offers more functionality and integrations, but with a monthly subscription fee. Customers will be charged for more advanced features and management capabilities, as well as integration into business applications.
All in all, I have to say that I was impressed with Project Squared and the ability to easily invite people and start collaborating right away. It has tremendous potential, especially when integrated with business applications to communication enable those applications. Cisco has its work cut out, as it needs to work with sales and channel partners to identify how to monetize Squared and how best to sell the premium service once it’s available. There will be challenges ahead, but the Cisco Collaboration team seems ready for the task.