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Quick (and Admittedly Random) Hits from Cisco Collaboration Summit

This week at its Collaboration Summit for partners, consultants and analysts, Cisco announced a crazy number of new products and services. Others at NoJitter have posted about some of the specifics. Here are some thoughts of my own, in no particular order:Video collaboration and communications was a big part of the discussion this week, highlighted by Medianet, the platform for delivering any media, anywhere; and Show and Share, the ability to record and tag video content. In his video presentation, Cisco's Marthin DeBeer predicted that soon, 90 percent of enterprise network traffic will be video content. That may be high, but there's no doubt that allowing employees to videoconference from anywhere, and post and stream video across the enterprise, will do one thing: require more robust networks, and the gear to deliver them. Just as Cisco has serious skin in the videoconferencing game even if it doesn't sell a single endpoint, pushing digital media works for the company, too. And speaking of using video to stay sticky: The Intercompany Cisco Telepresence Directory keeps it all in the family--as companies look to collaborate with partners on the network, they are by default looking for fellow Cisco users.

E-mail is one area where cloud makes a lot of sense. The security, compliance and management issues have pretty much been dealt with-hosted e-mail has been around forever-and the app itself doesn't differentiate a business. Cisco WebEx Mail looks good, and appears to offer some compelling new features to change the e-mail experience. It's a logical alternative to Gmail for companies that want to move to the cloud and change vendors in the process (Outlook and Notes are available on a hosted basis today). But the biggest barrier to enterprise shift from incumbent to disrupter is integration. Not with Outlook, but with all the other communications and business applications that currently support Outlook but not, presumably, WebEx Mail. The good news is that MAPI support allows integration with Microsoft applications, an important start.

The WebEx nodes are a good idea, letting companies take a hybrid approach to conferencing by extending the WebEx technology (typically residing entirely in the cloud) to the enterprise. This allows for more control and compliance around internal-only meetings, which stay behind the firewall on premises, as well as the ability to enhance performance and optimize bandwidth. At Frost & Sullivan, we are bullish on hybrid instances of UC deployment.

Presence federation remains a problem for the industry. Cisco has extended its XMPP support, but SIP integration across platforms and vendors remains critical. The cloud is the logical place to solve this, and Cisco is well positioned to dominate there with the WebEx Mediatone network-something I suggested to WebEx years ago, and which Cisco may finally be acting on now. Then again, we've been hearing promises of full, open and automatic presence interoperability for years, so I'm not yet holding my breath.

Cisco is offering a lot of choices when it comes to a landing site for employees. On the one hand, the Enterprise Collaboration Platform (ECP) is billed as the place for people to go to access all their corporate communications and information (it wasn't described as a portal, but that's essentially what it is). On the other hand, WebEx Mail keeps and promotes the Inbox as the place to go for managing enterprise communications. Then there's still Cisco Unified Personal Communicator and WebEx Connect, both out in new versions. If the goal is a single point of entry, customers can be excused for any confusion over which one to go with. My personal favorite is ECP, but portals haven't exactly rocked the enterprise communications world in the past, so we'll see.

We saw a lot of next-generation collaboration tools, including the hover capabilities within WebEx Mail; the ECP and Show and Share; ubiquitous presence information across applications; and improved meeting capabilities. But the issue of user breakdown gets bigger as the technology gets more complex--and what I saw looks pretty complex from a non-techie end-user point of view. Suddenly, I have to be interested in a massive amount of context related to my contacts and communications; I have to know what to do with it; I have to understand what specific communications technology to use when; and I have to understand how and when to collaborate with my colleagues. I'm exhausted just thinking about it.

Cisco itself is making business changes as it uses all this collaboration technology in its own organization. Cisco's internal Community Pages are a lot like IBM's Blue Pages: an integrated, searchable directory, with one-click access to communications; if you're looking for someone with specific skills, you can find them, then connect and collaborate. Communities exist around interests and projects; context is supported by document repositories and other relevant links. The company is also intent on delivering what it calls the Integrated Workforce Experience to all its employees. Here's the plan: Start with Cisco video and unified communications tools; add enterprise social software; personalize the technology to provide context for each user; and integrate all of it with back-office and productivity applications. Basically, the company is hoping to live the UC&C dream. Especially encouraging is that the company is changing its bonus structure to put an emphasis on collaboration, and has a team focused on understanding and supporting the cultural and businesses changes necessary to drive collaboration. Tune in next year for info on whether it's all happened...or working.

At least some of Cisco's technology is resonating with customers. CUWL has seen very rapid growth rate, with a clear dip in Q1 2009 but steady growth since then, and a very strong attach rate to new telephony buys. New price reductions (called, in Cisco's acronym-happy fashion, NOW for CUWL) should drive those numbers even higher in the near future.

I am very impressed with the breadth and depth of Cisco's communications and collaboration announcements this week. Starting now, they are extremely well positioned in the market. In an earlier post, Zeus Kerravala noted that with WebEx Mail, Cisco is competing more with Microsoft, which is true. But with its full range of UC&C tools and services, Cisco is also ready to battle IBM Lotus, which has always had the most complete set of communications, collaboration and social networking technologies.

Still, transformative technology doesn't come around very often. If you look at business communications, you have the telephone, the copier, the fax, e-mail, cellular phones... none of which entirely replaced what came before it. The question now is, what comes next? Cisco threw out lots of interesting new options this week, many of which seem to be positioned to play the roll of disrupter. But they can't all succeed. If history is any guide, we'll be lucky if one does. I have my ideas on where to place bets... what are yours?