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Is It the Network, Or Not?

To review what PostPath is all about, the company used standards as well as reverse-engineered Microsoft protocols to create a Linux-based server that looks to the rest of the infrastructure exactly like a Microsoft Exchange server. Since Exchange server owns about 70% of the enterprise market for email servers, the question is whether this can realistically be seen as a competitive play by Cisco. The challenge in terms of market positioning would be roughly equivalent to Microsoft deciding to get into the switch/router business.

Cisco says it's going to integrate the PostPath technology with its WebEx platform to create a more fully-featured platform for hosted Unified Communications/collaboration. That way, it's not seen as going head-to-head with Exchange inside the enterprise.

Software-as-a-service (SaaS), or hosted services, or whatever you want to call it, is clearly a stronger play for Cisco than it is for Microsoft; for the past couple of years, whenever you mention Unified Communications to Cisco, they'll invariably tell you it's about the network.

The question is whether this play will really work in the enterprise. People have been talking about hosted services forever; before SaaS, it was application service providers (ASPs), and nowadays, alongside the idea of SaaS you have Web 2.0/Enterprise 2.0, which could involve network-hosted services from instant messaging (IM) to Twitter and who knows what else. Enterprises are still struggling with the question of whether and how to bring these new applications under the security and policy (and performance!) umbrella of the IT department, rather than running their business on apps like Yahoo Messenger, which literally as I write these words is driving me crazy by signing off and on randomly and commandeering all of my laptop's resources in mid-sentence.

I think that if and when enterprises decide that text-to-telepresence UC is a business necessity--maybe not ubiquitously to all users, but comprehensively to some users--they'll be looking at a premises solution, because the enterprise will demand more robustness than what's available from ad hoc implementations of public services.

What about more robust hosted solutions? Will enterprises be willing to outsource their entire UC platform to an SI like Dimension Data or IBM, running WebEx? I just don't think they will. Maybe smaller enterprises, but not the larger ones.

So what does Cisco gain from PostPath? Do they really think they can challenge Microsoft head-to-head? PostPath, on its own, didn't think so; they emphasized interoperability and ease of migration to a non-Exchange server that was still able to talk to Outlook natively. In that scenario, Microsoft still owns the desktop, which is what all the big guys are aiming for.

As I said last week, I think this gets Cisco UC in front of the people--Exchange administrators--who are the engine that will drive Microsoft OCS (Office Communications Server) adoption, the same way that "data" decision-makers drove the adoption of Cisco Call Manager five years ago. If Cisco really is serious about using PostPath only in an SaaS context, I think they're missing an opportunity.