Cisco showcases big bets on collaboration

Unveiling 61 new products and features for enterprise employees to communicate with each other and partners, Cisco Systems executives emphasized the importance of collaboration at an event in San Francisco on Monday.

Chairman and CEO John Chambers continued his mantra of the past few years that the key to both enterprise success and economic productivity is the ability of people to work together and share information easily. On Monday, Cisco had several new tools for those tasks, mostly for delivery within the next several months.

"This isn't a technology or product announcement today. This is an architectural announcement that enables change in business or government strategy at a much faster speed," Chambers told partners, analysts and media at the Cisco Collaboration Summit.

He underscored the importance of the company's broad set of introductions by tying it in to what he called an emerging recovery of the world economy.

"At a time that most people are just popping their head back up, saying it feels like the economy's starting to go again, what are we going to do? We're going to have the foot not only off the (brake) pedal, it is completely down on the accelerator, and we are going to go to the fastest and most aggressive we've ever done in the history of our company," Chambers said.

The company's true overarching goal is to add value to its infrastructure offerings -- which now extend far beyond the routers and switches that initially built Cisco -- so they don't become generic products that are hard to charge a premium for, according to Ken Dulaney, Gartner's lead Cisco analyst.

"If they don't provide more value to the network, then they're open to attack from vendors who want to commoditize what they have," Dulaney said. "If all you want is a pipe from Point A to Point B, you're crazy to spend all this money on Cisco."

Speaking to reporters on Monday night, Chambers gave a similar message by making reference to China's biggest networking vendor. Cisco's strongest competitor in collaboration is Microsoft and in devices is Apple, he said. But in the big picture, "It's Huawei, Huawei and Huawei," Chambers said. The Chinese maker of wired and wireless infrastructure has used its relative cost advantage to make inroads in the developing world, though it has had less success so far in richer countries. Chambers also said Huawei has easier access to financing than its rivals through the Chinese government, its part owner.

Cisco seems to be taking direct aim at Microsoft with one of the biggest new products it introduced Monday, the Cisco WebEx Mail hosted e-mail service. WebEx Mail will let enterprise employees use their e-mail through a Web-based interface or their Microsoft Outlook clients. The service, based on technology acquired with PostPath, follows on from Cisco's gradual move into hosted services through its WebEx virtual meeting system.

It represents an alternative to Exchange servers owned and operated by enterprises themselves, Gartner's Dulaney said. WebEx Mail is also aimed at Google's enterprise Gmail and hosted e-mail that Microsoft is expected to offer. However, for most enterprises, e-mail works and doesn't need fixing, Dulaney said. "For most of our clients, change is something they fear," he said.

Among the many products introduced and demonstrated Monday, Cisco focused on being able to access content and communications on many platforms. Chief Demonstration Officer Jim Grubb retrieved the same voice mail on a BlackBerry, an iPhone, a Cisco desk phone, Cisco WebEx Connect desktop software, Microsoft Office Communicator and other clients. He also moved a videoconferencing session from Cisco's Telepresence high-definition videoconferencing system to WebEx and a Cisco desktop phone.

Another key trend Cisco hopes to lead is social networking within enterprises. Chambers showed off the Enterprise Collaboration Platform, which lets employees set up profile pages that keep others up to date on their activities and areas of expertise. The platform is designed to help users form groups and find the right person to turn to on a given problem.

The Enterprise Collaboration Platform takes advantage of a technology Cisco calls Pulse, which can analyze data such as e-mail, text messages, documents and video transcripts and look for words the organization considers important. Employees can rate each others' expertise in particular areas to make it easier to find an subject expert. Pulse can be used to show what important issues each employee has been working on and let users search for all types of content by topic. Enterprises can choose to turn it on for all employees or let them opt in.

Cisco believes social networking will be the main way employees find each other and form groups. However, Chambers told reporters he doesn't lead with that angle when selling the company's vision to enterprise CEOs. Instead, he offers them a way to face growing competition with costs already cut to the bone. Collaboration is the best way to quickly invent new products and enter new markets, and especially with younger workers entering the workforce, social networking increasingly is the best way to foster collaboration, he said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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