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Cisco: Reaching for the Mountain -- Finally

Along with much of the industry, earlier this week I watched Cisco's Collaboration Summit opening day keynote. In it I heard something that I've been waiting on for a long time: an acknowledgement of an embarrassing reality in the collaboration market, and a pledge to do something about it.

My surprise came within the first five minutes of the program.

My cohorts here at No Jitter have covered the Spark-to-Webex rebranding (good move, and Cisco picked the right name to use) and the product details (here and here), leaving me to what I consider the big moment. That's when Rowan Trollope, Cisco's SVP & GM, Applications, related a story about Stewart Brand, author of the iconic Whole Earth Catalog. The Catalog, which used the slogan "access to tools" and coined the phrase "Stay hungry. Stay Foolish," helped inspire the Internet generation.

Trollope explained how Brand, who trained as a biologist, held that technology evolution in many ways mirrored biological evolution. In the 1950s, biologists viewed evolution as a series of hills and mountains separated by valleys. Life appeared to evolve in a series of "local optimums," in essence, moving among the low hills. The question became: Why didn't people develop more fitness so they could conquer the surrounding mountains?

The answer, he said, was that getting to the next mountain meant first going down into the valley, which seemed foolish to many people. He related that sort of thinking to technology developments that brought companies to their own "low hills" and "low fitness levels."

Consumer Guideposts

In a rather telling revelation, Trollope then applied that paradigm to the collaboration business. Five or six years ago the industry had collaboration technologies to offer, but sat on a low hill, he said. Getting collaboration to the next level called for experimentation and courage, and the guideposts Trollope cited, not surprisingly, were the consumer mobile business and mobile messaging. This struck a chord with me, because it reflects a theme I've been writing about for most of a decade -- that being the low level of competition in UC and collaboration mobility.

To describe how Cisco planned to rise above this morass, Trollope pointed to the design principles he's fostering. The first two come right out of the consumer mobile playbook: simplicity and a compelling experience. The goal, he said, is to create a "radically new experience."

To drive home the point, Trollope cited Peter Theil, PayPal cofounder and early Facebook investor. In his book, "Zero to One," Theil advocates that getting people to change their behaviors, like moving from email to collaborative workspaces, requires a product that isn't just incrementally better, but orders of magnitude better.

When Trollope talked about standing on a low hill looking at "mountains," I thought back to all those Enterprise Connect keynotes where leading executives from enterprise suppliers took the stage and, one after another, went on to praise the marvels of consumer technology, exulted over its commanding success, and even delighted us with their own favorite apps or features from those tech marvels. Then they went on to show us the woeful wares they were selling.

I've long been writing about the relationship between consumer-driven mobile technologies and enterprise technology solutions. Over the years, enterprise suppliers have liked to portray mobile consumer tools as complementary to their solutions, but those of us out talking to actual users have known that they've really been competitive offerings. And the enterprise suppliers have been coming out on the short end of that competition.

The reason for this is simple: The consumer guys deliver better -- or to borrow from Trollope's design principles, more compelling -- products. I've long attributed this performance gap to a problem in product design philosophy at the enterprise suppliers that I identified as: "Thinking in terms of what you can build rather than building something someone actually wants."

I don't know Trollope personally, though I have closely followed his progress at Cisco, and he seems to have landed on the single biggest element that has held back the enterprise market: high visions with low expectations of performance and, hence, adoption.

Those low expectations yielded crappy mobile offerings that nobody used. That last sentence essentially summarizes what we've seen in the way of mobile offerings from enterprise suppliers for the last 10 years -- basically, for as long as they've been at this.

Getting Closer

As both a hardware and a software supplier, Cisco is starting to show that it can deliver on the promise. A great example, which Trollope referenced on stage, is the ultrasound-based Proximity solution for associating mobile devices with room-based video systems.

I've lost count of how many short-range wireless technologies we're wrestling with in the mobile space... from Bluetooth to ZigBee, including Wi-Fi 802.11ad, near-field communications, beacons, and the list goes on. But nobody else is talking about ultrasound (i.e., audio frequencies above the range of human hearing). Cisco walked away from the mess and came up with something different and unique, and while it may not be a standard, Cisco Proximity can make the required sound, and users now have a great way to integrate mobile and room-based video devices.

All I can say is, I hope Trollope can pull it off. Success is measured in numbers, and up until now, mobile users have chosen the consumer solution if one was available over anything they can get from the enterprise suppliers. Frankly, the consumer guys have been performing to a way higher standard.

It's refreshing to see that at least Cisco has woken up to this reality and has taken up the challenge to start delivering solutions that meet the needs of enterprise users but deliver the simplicity, functionality, and, most importantly, compelling UX that will cause customers to adopt them.

We'll be watching.

Follow Michael Finneran on Twitter.