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Cisco eyes bigger role in collaboration with SaaS version of WebEx, Unified Communications 7.0

Company sees role as provider in competition with IBM and Microsoft, analyst says

September 24, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Cisco Systems Inc. will announce a new 7.0 release of its unified communications software today, as well as a software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform based on WebEx that allows developers to integrate collaboration capabilities, video and business applications.

The move signals a strong pushback into collaboration software as it takes on Microsoft Corp. and IBM, both competitors having moved into Cisco's space in unified communications (UC) over the past year. "Cisco has to protect its UC strength and expand into collaboration," said Mike Gotta, an analyst at The Burton Group in Salt Lake City.

"Cisco has been wrestling with how they can compete with IBM and Microsoft without being caught up in the battlefield of dead companies that have taken them both on before," Gotta said. Cisco's announcements also bring it into competition with Google Inc. for collaboration in "the cloud," he added.

The announcements include Cisco Unified Communications 7.0, updating the 6.0 release of March 2006, Cisco officials said. David Knight, director of product management of collaborative software, said the upgrade provides greater ease of use and better interoperability with business applications. Knight has been with Cisco for a year, after spending the previous five years at WebEx, which was purchased by Cisco in March last year.

"We view collaboration as driving the next wave in Internet and productivity improvements," Knight told Computerworld.

The new WebEx SaaS platform, called Cisco WebEx Connect, will include mobile client software and Web-based capabilities by early 2009. Pricing for all of the products and availability of Cisco Unified Communications 7.0 weren't announced.

A third piece of the Cisco collaboration vision is TelePresence Expert on Demand, which ties Cisco TelePresence technology into contact centers for customer service.

WebEx Connect will include enterprise instant messaging (IM), team spaces, document management, calendaring and wikis. All of those functions can be combined with third-party widgets built using open APIs. WebEx Connect will also work with the Cisco UC system, Knight said.

The Cisco Unified Communications 7.0 release allows for interoperation between desktop products from IBM and Microsoft, such as the exchange of presence information and IMs between Cisco Unified Personal Communicator, Microsoft Office Communicator and Lotus Sametime.

Mike DeDecker, a network engineer at Activision, the maker of the popular Guitar Hero game, said the company used the UC platform in two previous releases, which allowed 1,500 employees to work globally and make phone calls to one another by dialing only four digits. The UC capability has reduced toll-call costs and made it easier for users to make calls, he told Computerworld.

DeDecker said that with the 7.0 version, which has been deployed in production at Activision for two months, he can configure routing across multiple organizations with half the effort, reducing the number of dialing rules, or software networking instructions, needed from 40 to 20 in some cases.

In general, DeDecker said, the Cisco software has saved the company time and money, often cutting the time to configure a branch office from four hours to two hours or less.

Even though he said the 7.0 software is an improvement, DeDecker noted that he hopes Cisco will unify all of the IM platforms that users want to deploy. That way, instead of having to run Cisco Unified Personal Communicator, AOL Instant Messenger and Google Talk on a desktop, all of those can be centralized into one interface.

Read more about Networking in Computerworld's Networking Topic Center.

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