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A Closer Look at the Cisco-Google Alliance

Day 2 of the 2014 edition of Enterprise Connect started with a bang. The first keynote of the day was by Cisco's Collaboration Business Unit General Manager, Rowan Trollope. Although Trollope has presented at other conferences, this was his first Enterprise Connect keynote. As expected, he showed off the new video endpoints the company had announced last week and talked a lot about ease of use and the problems with UC today.

Trollope certainly saved the best for last, though, when he invited Google's director of product management for Chrome for Business, Rajen Sheth, to join him on stage, then proclaimed that the two tech giants would be teaming up in the area of unified communications. The two companies demonstrated Cisco's WebEx running natively on a Google Chromebook within a Chrome browser.

WebEx has not been able to run on a Chromebook, the fastest growing segment of the laptop market, because WebEx requires a browser plug in to be installed on the device. I, like many of you reading this, probably use WebEx regularly on a Windows or Mac OS computer, but this partnership opens up the Chromebook market, which now accounts for around 20% of the US laptop market.

From what I understand, the two companies accomplished this task through some joint engineering where Cisco enabled WebEx to operate using HTML 5, and Google has built some extensions within the Chromebook to support WebEx. There were no real details given on availability, and the audience was told that this was still in the "proof of concept" stage. No mention was made of where the partnership goes after this, but I imagine it won't be long before WebEx runs within Chrome natively, no matter what device is being used.

The partnership certainly has some interesting ramifications for both companies, who have a common enemy in Microsoft. Cisco and Microsoft have been going at each other in collaboration now for years, with each vendor having its relative strengths and weaknesses. One area where Cisco has been unable to disrupt Microsoft is in the area of office productivity and email. If you remember, around the same time that Cisco acquired Jabber, it purchased an e-mail platform, PostPath, to try and shake things up in that market. Cisco had little success with email and quickly shut down the PostPath product.

Google, on the other hand, has had tremendous success with the easy-to-use and cloud-based corporate Gmail product. I know several businesses that have migrated away from the inflexible and expensive Exchange solution to Gmail and haven't regretted it at all. IT leaders I've discussed this with have told me that ease of use, low cost and speed of Gmail far outweigh any training issues.

Google also has a growing footprint in office productivity with the Google Docs suite. While not nearly as feature-rich as Office, Docs is gaining some traction with small businesses and with students who don't want to pay the big bucks for Office. However, if Google wants to be a more serious player in this area, it needs to beef up the presentation tool and spreadsheet to compete better with Power Point and Excel respectively.

The implications for ubiquitous video are equally interesting. During his presentation, Trollope pointed out that WebEx video running on a Chromebook could natively connect to Telepresence solutions through the cloud. When this works natively through a Chrome browser, then anyone on any device using Chrome can connect into a TelePresence-based meeting without having to worry about installing plug ins or mobile apps. A fast path to ubiquitous video.

This partnership does make one wonder about the future of Google's UC platform, Hangouts. While I know a few small businesses that are using Hangouts for collaboration, most don't consider Hangouts to be business class--at least not yet. So maybe Google keeps it around as a consumer and SMB play, and then its mid to large enterprise strategy winds up being through the partnership with Cisco.

I would have liked to have seen more detail on the timing of the product, what this means for Cisco's support of WebRTC and how Hangouts fits into the picture. Clearly though, it's in Cisco's and Google's best interest to leverage each other's relative strength to slow down the momentum of Microsoft Lync.

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