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Quick Takes on Cisco and Microsoft

Two 800-pound gorillas made UC&C news this week, as Cisco launched its annual Collaboration Summit, and Microsoft announced the availability of Lync. Here are my quick takes on the two:

The new features in Lync get Microsoft closer to par with the other leading UC&C vendors. The new voice capabilities (call access control, survivable branch, E-911) now make the technology a viable voice option for the enterprise; skill search and more-integrated and table-stakes conferencing capabilities improve the collaboration and social networking experience. Taken together, the new features are really only new to Microsoft (not the industry), but they make Lync a legitimate UC&C tool for those customers that want to adopt it.

Does that make the software a good choice for bleeding-edge organizations that want to leverage new technology to gain a competitive advantage today? No; other UC&C vendors have more mature and significant products. But for the vast majority of Microsoft's customers, that doesn’t really matter. They're not ready to deploy advanced technologies today; when they are, Lync looks like it will be ready (in whatever version, and by whatever name) to support them. I still expect most companies to support mixed environments for voice and collaboration, but Microsoft's pricing model and desktop footprint mean the company will make good headway on the client front in the years to come.

Cisco, meanwhile, says that collaboration is about people, not technology. Which is certainly true, and also why I continue to have my doubts about the hard push the company is making around video. The biggest argument we hear for pervasive video is built around the consumerization of IT: As people increasingly use video through smart phones and social media sites, with the popularization of YouTube and HD TVs, they will want to use video as part of their enterprise communications.

But this argument misses a key point: While many consumers are indeed consuming more video these days, that’s not the same thing as using video to communicate. Watching (or making) a funny/smart/astounding video clip is an entirely different experience than meeting with someone via video conference. And today, the main consumer users of video conferencing are grandparents and long-distance lovers (with a few high-traveling parents thrown in). In the enterprise, the power users are high-level managers and executives, who use telepresence and HD video to replace travel to and from strategic meetings. Which is great--but not ubiquitous.

In fact, I would argue that the trend in communications is away from high-touch and toward low-touch experiences. We all know people are more likely to text (whether via email, SMS or IM) than call. If most people prefer to "talk" to people through typing rather than on the phone--they like the barrier text creates, they find it easier to manage, they perceive it to be faster, whatever--why would they would now be inclined to up the ante through video? Video conferencing is a high-touch form of communications that managers rightly love (it keeps people on their toes, prevents multi-tasking, and encourages personal bonds), and which actual end users shy away from (for all the same reasons).

Cisco says "video is the new voice." But voice is is that really how you want to pitch the new technology?