The Microsoft-Cisco Teams collaboration could create an interoperability revolution

If everyone's going to work together, our tools have to work together, too. That's why the news from Microsoft and Cisco at this week's Ignite event matters.

mesh for teams grid

Editor's note: Both Microsoft and Cisco are clients of the author.

I’ve covered videoconferencing since the late 1980s and can recall when Andy Grove, after taking Intel into this market, later called that one of the biggest mistakes he ever made. That's because the companies that created videoconferencing tools seemed not to understand that interoperability is critical. They all seemed to believe they could create closed ecosystems and move the market forward.

That didn’t work in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, or the 2010s. Facing the same problem telephone companies addressed in the 1970s, decade after decade (even from companies like Cisco), was beyond frustrating.

Then Microsoft entered this market, and interoperation is now on the roadmap for an increasing number of companies. Case in point: At Microsoft Ignite this week, Cisco announced its hardware would support Microsoft Teams in the future. With firms like Sennheiser, HP, and now Cisco signing on to work on Teams, we may finally have a sustainable videoconferencing platform — and, thanks to these announcements, the leading solution in the hunt is Microsoft Teams. (I expect Webex will shortly follow with similar interoperability efforts.)

Why interoperability is critical

In the early days of communications, interoperation wasn’t a thing. Solutions were end-to-end, and firms like AT&T argued that expanding support to third-party products would be disastrous. Governments disagreed, and the old AT&T gave way as competitors showed that not only weren’t third-party products a problem, they also provided huge cost and coverage benefits over the single-vendor vision.

Today, cell phones have to work with other cell phones. Outliers (like Apple) are no longer those that interoperate, but those that refuse to interoperate well.

Communications devices should work seamlessly with third-party devices. Otherwise, the lack of interoperability limits the market. One reason Microsoft’s Zune music player failed was because it didn’t interoperate well with the iPod. (In Microsoft’s defense, the company feared Apple would sue them if they fixed that problem.) 

Microsoft brings change

Until the early 2000s, Microsoft wasn’t an interoperability believer. While it wasn’t as bad as the old IBM or Oracle, it remained a fan of closed ecosystems. Then the European Commission began to fine the company for its lack of interoperability in data centers; Microsoft at first fought those efforts, then decided to not only comply but excel in interoperability. 

The contrast between Apple and Microsoft is obvious: while Apple seems like it wants to own everything on its platform, Microsoft is showing it can embrace open software and interoperability. Regulatory pressure, which Microsoft used to get in spades, now seems focused more on Apple.

The Microsoft path isn’t just better for customers; it is less aggravating for the company and equally good for investors. 

Sennheiser takes a step

I had a meeting last week with officials at Sennheiser, which is releasing a new speaker for Microsoft Teams. This speaker, called the TeamConnect Intelligent Speaker, can plug in and operate with anyone’s Teams hardware. Typically, a conference room solution, even if designed to work with a product like Zoom, will only use accessories from the same vendor. But Microsoft’s spec is PC-centric, meaning accessories and consoles can be used with each other just like a PC peripheral (with Apple the recurring exception). And it will work on any PC that has the appropriate USB or Bluetooth interface.

Sennheiser is an expert on speakers, delivering to customers a better solution without forcing them to hope against hope the vendor will eventually meet their needs. Players like Sennheiser easily step in and create a more flexible and agile solution. 

It's an awesome little speaker that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for this focus on interoperability. And it illustrates why similar moves from Cisco are important.

Cisco makes a move

Cisco is a telecom company. It should get, even better than Microsoft, why things in its space need to interoperate and how to differentiate on features, capabilities, and price without locking out competing solutions. Embracing Teams doesn’t mean it's abandoning Webex, but Webex will need to find a path to third-party hardware or it will lose ground against options like Teams.

Cisco seems to get this, based on the statement yesterday from Jeetu Patel, executive vice president and general manager, security and collaboration at Cisco: "Interoperability has always been at the forefront of our hybrid work strategy, understanding that customers want collaboration to happen on their terms — regardless of device or meeting platform,” said Patel. “Our partnership with Microsoft brings together two collaboration leaders to completely reimagine the hybrid work experience.”

This should help drive Cisco toward a future where Webex and Teams could interoperate, as well, which might mean the end of products like Zoom. Or it could force companies like Zoom to provide customers with something they’ve always wanted: collaboration products that work when and where they need them.

It amazes me how far Microsoft has come from when it was a closed system, like Apple. Now, it’s arguably driving interoperability into a segment that should have been, but wasn’t, defined by interoperability long ago. I’m surprised how few people understand how often it is true that doing the right thing is also the most profitable thing for a company. This latest partnership between Cisco and Microsoft reflects very well on both companies and for the future of the segment. 

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