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Fueling the Cisco versus Microsoft Fire

All eyes are on San Diego this week as the Microsoft Lync conference kicks off. And regarding the Cisco versus Microsoft debate that has risen over the past few years--this has become the tech industry's version of Red Sox–Yankees.

Every survey I have seen over the past couple of years, including a Tech Target one I ran towards the end of 2012, points to Cisco being the most preferred UC solution provider, with Microsoft hot on their heels at #2. Avaya holds down with a strong #3 and then everyone else is fighting for table scraps. Understand, the surveys I have run look more at current preference than market share, as Lync is a still a minority share holder when it comes to UC.

Anyway, the point is that the debate is well worth the time because of the dominant position these two vendors find themselves in. So let's spend a bit of time looking at the relative strengths and weaknesses of each vendor.

Enterprise voice: Advantage Cisco
Despite all the changes this industry has gone through, voice is still the big application. In that Tech Target survey I referred to, VoIP was the top anchor application when it came to UC deployments, and this was an area where Cisco dominated Microsoft.

The majority of respondents, 62.3%, felt that Cisco was the leader in enterprise voice. Avaya was second with 17.3%, "others" made up 10.6% and only 9% of the audience cited Microsoft. I know that Microsoft has done a significant amount of marketing around Lync voice, but let's be realistic here--they have a long way to go to catch all of the vendors, not just Cisco. It takes a long time to do voice well, and Microsoft has an immature product here.

Audio and Web conferencing: Advantage Cisco
This is another application that may seem boring, but conferencing (audio/web) was the second most important UC application in the survey I ran. I wasn't really surprised by the strength of conferencing, considering how much it's used in any business person's life. This is another area that Cisco dominated in the survey, with 50% responding Cisco was the leader, compared to 20% for Microsoft. Cisco's WebEx audio conferencing platform has become the de facto standard for document sharing, so it's hard to argue with Cisco's leadership here.

Desktop Chat and Presence: Advantage Microsoft
The results of this response surprised me, as Cisco and Microsoft were virtually neck and neck in the survey. Contrary to what you might think, Cisco held a slight edge here with 35% of the respondents thinking that Cisco is the leader, with 34% for Microsoft. The reason I gave the advantage to Microsoft is that their go-to-market is tied up in the integration of their presence engine into other Microsoft applications, and considering the popularity of the Microsoft apps, the advantage should go to Microsoft.

Frankly though, doing chat and presence well isn't nearly as complex as what it is for voice or video. Whether a customer chooses to use Cisco's Jabber, Microsoft Lync, Avaya, ShoreTel, whatever, the experience will be roughly the same.

Enterprise video: Advantage Cisco
This is another area of UC where Cisco dominates Microsoft. The survey showed that 54% of the respondents felt Cisco was the leader. If you compare Cisco's video capabilities to that of Lync, it's not even worth comparing. Cisco's video solutions are just flat out better and broader than anything you can do with Lync natively. If you compare Cisco to Microsoft+Polycom, then the solutions are comparable, but the customer must choose to do this and manage multiple vendors. If the customer goes with Vidyo, Lifesize or another vendor, some sort of gateway is needed. The integration of Cisco video into its own UC solution gives Cisco a big edge here.

Next page: Cloud, mobile, applications

Cloud UC: Push
Cloud is where both vendors have put significant resources to improve their product offerings over the past couple of years. From the research I've done, I believe Cisco's HCS is the best cloud UC solution on the market today, but the company needs to clean up its go-to-market. Its pricing model needs to change and discount levels to channel partners need to match what the premise solutions get, or the cloud provider/channel partner will just continue to push premise solutions, as that's where the most money is to be made.

Microsoft, on the other hand, has a mixed bag of cloud stuff. Skype, Office 365, Lync online, SharePoint online, etc. all make up Microsoft's UC cloud offerings, but nothing is very well integrated. In the survey, I did ask who was your preferred UC cloud provider, and Cisco and Microsoft scored #1 and #2 respectively. If I just went off the data, I would have given Cisco the advantage, but I think the same theme rings true for both--lots of potential, now go execute.

Mobile UC: Advantage Cisco
The big Achilles Heel for Microsoft here is their commitment to Windows first. I actually kind of like the new Windows Phone interface, but Apple and Android have far too big a lead on the industry. Cisco's incented to go build products for the mobile market leaders first, Microsoft is less so, and mobile Windows devices will never be anything but a minority share player. Cisco's mobility story also extends to the network, Microsoft's is all about the client, and my belief is that mobile computing is network-centric, not device-centric, and that puts the advantage in Cisco's hands.

UC-Enabled Applications: Advantage Microsoft
Neither vendor has done a great job in this area. Frankly, given the size of the Microsoft developer network, I'm shocked Microsoft hasn't done more here. I remember years ago Microsoft telling me how aggressive they would be in this area, and then they promptly went and put all their energy into voice, which a year before they said didn't matter.

Cisco on the other hand has been messing around with Cisco Developer Network for years and hasn't gained much momentum here either. The only reason I tip the scales in Microsoft's favor is because of the potential due to their developer network. Again, both companies have potential, Microsoft because of the existing community and Cisco because of its voice share--how about one of you go execute?

Microsoft has been talking a big game now for years and because of their position in IT, customers are listening. I believe Cisco's lead in the areas that are hard--voice, video, etc.--will keep them ahead of Microsoft for the near future. This year will be the year Microsoft finally makes a big push into voice, and it's time for the company to start walking instead of just talking.

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