Cisco’s Webex future: they got it right this time

Is the coming update to Cisco’s Webex, one of my all-time least favorite video conferencing products, a light at the end of what has been a dark tunnel for video conferencing/collaboration products?

cisco amy chang

[Disclosure: Cisco is a client of the author.] 

To say I’m not a fan of Cisco’s Webex platform would be a huge understatement. But every platform out their sucks in some way with the current darling in market likely being Zoom.

So, it was with some surprise that, as I watched Amy Chang present in San Diego on the near-term future of Webex, I actually stopped doing email and was pulled into what she was saying and concluded “damn, she gets it.”

I’ve been involved in this space since the late 1980s and I’ve seen a ton of firms screw up, from IBM to Google. Every decade or so the industry gets excited about collaboration/video conferencing…and then loses its shirt. Largely because it doesn’t get that it isn’t about speeds and feeds, processors, closed systems or even platforms. It’s about communications, interoperation, simplicity and making it so someone working remotely isn’t disadvantaged.

But everyone in this space – including for some insane reason telecom companies that should know better – makes their solution proprietary, throwing out the standards-based approach that has supported telephones since AT&T was opened up decades ago.

The presentation I saw at Cisco Live! last week that makes me think they get it. It was by Amy Chang, who I’ve not seen before (and who is an impressive presenter, by the way), and she nailed pretty much everything I just said about requirements. Chang is from Accompany, which was acquired by Cisco some time ago and looks to be able to fix Webex.

(On a lighter note, doesn’t Accompany sound like a modern-day riff on the old Abbot and Costello “Who’s On First” gag? “We bought Accompany. Oh, you bought a company, what was its name? Accompany. Yes, I get you bought a company but what do you call it? Accompany…”)

Let’s talk about the future of collaboration…

One platform

Right from the start Chang correctly pointed out that customers don’t want a bunch of different communications platforms that don’t interoperate with each other. This is Telecom 101: everything should work with everything. So, this future Webex client is going to encompass calling, messaging and meetings. Much like it once was with our old analog phone, you only need one client to do all your communications. This means you can be in a call and still get messaging (instant and email) – not be isolated from it. You can move from a phone call to a video conference call without leaving the app.

Have you ever been on a call and wanted to show someone something? With this new client you should be able to and it’ll integrate with most of the major systems, including Microsoft Office 365 (Outlook and PowerPoint predominantly, but you could also do other components like Excel), Microsoft Teams, iOS, Google Cloud, and Slack...with more to come.

It doesn’t matter if you implement in the cloud with common resources or on premises, and it’ll work on dedicated hardware like Roomkit Mini, PCs or smartphones. So, you get a variety of integrated services, your choice of hardware and the most comprehensive integration effort I’ve yet seen. Cisco got that it was far from complete, but they set the bar, for once, at an appropriate height.

Remote advantage

One of the big historical problems with these solutions was – and still is – that remote folks feel isolated. This is likely where the AI component of this solution will play an increasing role. Initially though, a little thing like facial recognition could play a huge role. This is because the system can recognize and set up for the operator (choosing the likely service, preferred user interface and populate with known settings the operator has historically used). However, it will also provide names of the people in the audience so that any remote person always knows who is in the room and especially who is talking so they can direct their questions appropriately.

More importantly, they can text or email wile in the conference interface making up for the typical disadvantage of side conversations. Given people text each other more and more often, even if they’re in the same conference room, this allows a remote attendee to interface almost as well as someone in the room without disturbing the other attendees.

I expect it’ll take time for users to realize this but, with the proper training, remote workers should be able to engage with the folks in the room better than if they were in the room (because their typing won’t distract the other attendees).

One thing I learned

As I noted at the start, I’ve been covering these products since the ‘80s. I could likely dust off the foils I had back then pointing to problems and still use them today, because every 10 years the industry seems to want to learn from scratch.

But during Chang’s talk, something new occurred to me. You see, Chang is a natural speaker. This means with little prep she can get up on a stage, hold an audience and deliver a compelling message. It struck me, watching her, that maybe this is what we missed in all those earlier iterations. The person leading the effort, given this is a communications platform, should be a natural communicator. They would intuitively know what’s needed because they’d feel the greatest pain when the tool falls short of their needs.

Engineers are known to suck as communicators. And yet they’re the ones that have generally led these failed communication product efforts. The fact that Cisco was able to get firms like Ford, Procter & Gamble and Splunk on board with their new effort is a showcase for how much progress Chang’s team is making here.

Like most successful products I’ve covered, success is tied to the capabilities and knowledge of the person leading the effort – and Amy Chang appears to be that perfect storm of a person leading this particular effort.

We’ll know in a few months, but if you want to see collaboration and communications that will redefine the future, check out Cisco’s coming Webex offering. I’ll bet you’ll be as impressed as I was.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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