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Apple Versus Cisco: Main Event?

Everyone has probably read that Cisco is asking the EU to reconsider its approval of the Microsoft acquisition of Skype, even as Microsoft says it will integrate the popular desktop communications package across its product families. Cisco wants the EU to demand more interoperability pledges from Microsoft, but this issue is just a warm-up. The main event, which happened to be announced the day after the Cisco appeal decision, is Apple's integration of messaging and synchronization between iOS gadgets to the Mac. Look out, Cisco; this is your real threat to WebEx, and more!

Apple, either by luck or design, pushed its appliances out into the market at a critical time, when broadband mobile services were expanding and users were lacking any specific tools to exploit them. Sure, in the past you could stick a dongle in your laptop and try to use it while walking, driving, or even sitting, but it was the fact that you could use an iPhone anywhere and an iPad anywhere you could perch for a moment that made the devices revolutionary. It also made the devices the natural tools for unified communication, collaboration, and conferencing.

Up to the time Apple launched its iCloud, the potential that iOS appliances offered in any UC-related area was exploited through apps, and that meant that anyone (including Cisco) could tap in. With iCloud and the extension of iOS features to the Mac, Apple is signaling that it's going to enter the UC space directly with a cloud-based or at least cloud-synchronized model. As I've blogged before, this is the model that users want, and Apple is likely one of the vendors that users want a cloud-hosted UC model from most of all. Why? Because of those cute, cool, Apple devices.

Apple could easily become a powerhouse in UC, working the market from the outside (the devices) in, and the company most likely to interfere with Apple's plans isn't Cisco, it's Microsoft. Collaboration needs two things to work: things to collaborate through (products) and people to collaborate with (users). Skype may not have cool gadgets like Apple, but it works on pretty much any gadget and it has an enormous user base. iCloud, we’re told, has 100 million users, and Skype about 124 million active users.

It would seem that Cisco's move to derail the Skype/Microsoft deal could actually end up validating a more dangerous foe. How many tech companies have been outmaneuvered by Microsoft, after all? It's like getting run over by a glacier. And in any event, Cisco's quest to fix monopolistic threats in UC or conferencing through interoperability standards is doomed.

You can interconnect voice services because the services exchange a simple payload, which is digitized voice. At worst, you'd have to transcode it. You can sort of interconnect video if the video formatting is compatible, but it's more difficult/expensive to transcode video on the fly. But it’s darn hard to interconnect features. As soon as you click a button to open a white board or share a document or something complicated, you're off in the Great Beyond and it's hard to imagine how standards would fix that. How long have we had IM interworking standards without real universal IM?

The challenge that Microsoft/Skype, or Apple, or Cisco's own aspirations for a role in the conferencing and collaboration market of the future pose is one of inevitable fragmentation. It's a challenge because simple interworking won't create a single truly unified community, because it will never be possible to "interwork" every feature of every conferencing or collaborative system. Even "federating" UC, which has been proposed and also discussed in an earlier article on No Jitter may not be enough because basic UC federation is still just interworking in a brown paper bag.

What's the answer? It may be something that's emerging in the carrier community, for their own advanced services. You view communications, collaboration, conferencing, and pretty much everything else as a set of components. You let users or developers assemble components to build "services". Where those services require interworking between diverse approaches to applications like conferencing, you do the interworking by integrating the components of multiple vendors into a single offering and not by linking the services at the high level. This is what most carriers would call "composition" and "federating components". It's not there yet, but it's coming.

Even Apple might find it difficult not to contribute some of its own features into a federation-linked community organized by global telcos, cable companies, ISPs, etc. Microsoft, given their precarious anti-trust situation, would likely find it impossible not to. Developers and even users could assemble UC/UCC from piece-parts to fit their goals, and even design in cross-community integration so iCloud and Live-based users could live in harmony and work together. So for Cisco, the promotion of this model of federation would be a path to achieving what they say they want, which is the opening of the post-acquisition Microsoft/Skype collaborative community.

If Cisco shifts the dialogue here, it could not only advance the state of openness in any Microsoft/Skype community, it could open the whole of the UC and UCC markets to developer- and even user-driven innovation. Think about it, Mister Chambers. Why feed another legion of lawyers when you can feed a market!