Cisco brings UC, collaboration, to the cloud

Cisco has revamped its WebEx collaboration service.

Cisco Systems launched a new Web-based collaboration platform based on it WebEx conferencing technology.

Tightly integrated with Cisco's unified communications and TelePresence product portfolios, WebEx Connect is a cloud-based platform for collaborative mash-up applications. It comes standard with enterprise instant messaging, presence, team spaces, document management and calendaring. It features open APIs that allow enterprises and third-party developers to insert widgets into the platform that would allow users to access a variety of hosted and premise-based applications from within the platform.

"What we're trying to do with the WebEx Connect client is when you come to work in the morning and power up you're laptop, you'll go right into our WebEx Connect platform," said Doug Dennerline, senior vice president of Cisco's collaboration software group. "You'll have your community of interest that you're participating with inside and outside the firewall. You'll have all the capabilities you need as a knowledge work displayed for you in what we call the 'webtop.' So we hope you'll stay there all day, with presence, instant messaging, team spaces, wikis, blogs, document sharing. So many of us that are in the [internal] beta today, we spend all of our day inside the client."

Cisco is integrating WebEx Connect with the rest of its unified communications and collaboration portfolio. It also leverages a services-oriented architecture to help IT managers apply strict policy management to the use of the platform inside their organizations.

Zeus Kerravala, vice president with Yankee Group, said Cisco is transforming WebEx from a product into a platform.

"What WebEx Connect does is allow application developers to access a lot of the components of WebEx, such as presence information, and even be able to use WebEx features to integrate into the applications they build," he said. "This is part of the bigger trend of making unified communications more of a platform than an application."

Cisco has to a lot of work to do in order to pull this off, according to Mike Gotta, principal analyst with Burton Group. He believes it will take WebEx Connect three to five years to develop into a platform that can rival other leaders in the collaboration market such as IBM and Microsoft. The key to success will be winning over third party application developers.

"They've got to build out the platform, build out the channel, get partners going and find new champions in the developer community," Gotta said. "It's not an easy market to crack because Microsoft and IBM have a stranglehold on it. [Cisco has] got to develop partners and channels and they've got to figure out a way to be attractive to the application development community. If you talk to AppDev people, they might think Eclipse and they might think Visual Studio, but they might not think, 'I'm going to build applications based on a toolkit that Cisco provides."

Dennerline said Cisco recruited 70 partners to develop applications on WebEx Connect prior to this week's launch. Cisco also plans to make the hosted email capabilities it grabbed in its recent acquisition of PostPath available, he said. No doubt last week's acquisition of Jabber, an instant messaging technology pioneer, will also figure prominently in future updates to WebEx Connect.

John Kingsley, director of business integration at AECom, an architectural and engineering firm with 40,000 employees spread across the globe, has been piloting WebEx Connect with 50 users for about a month.

"We're using it for improved internal communications with a globally diverse team," Kingsley said. "We've got people spread literally all around the globe, so being able to work together more effectively is huge. If we have a project team working on a wind farm in Europe, we might have people in Europe, the United State and Asia all collaborating together. So we're trying to find the best way to leverage our expertise globally for our clients. This will better help us to do that because we can't just rely on email back and forth anymore."

Kingsley's users keep the WebEx Connect client open on their desktop all day, and check it regularly for updates to projects, much like they might with Microsoft Outlook, he said. He said the platform has given employees a central place to store project information, allowing them to escape from local file shares.

"And by having it provided in the software-as-a-service model, it's easier to access for a lot of people," he said. "Our internal SharePoint might be located here in Massachusetts where I am, or there's another in the AECom corporate offices in Los Angeles. But for the folks in Asia, there's just additional challenges from a network perspective to get there. And you have latency. So this has helped ease access for a lot of globally diverse folks."

Kingsley said the ability to build your own tools into WebEx Connect is a major advantage. He said this could allow his company to build widgets which allow users to access SharePoint or the company's enterprise resource planning system through the platform.

"If we can build our own tools on an open, shared platform, then we can start plugging things in for our own information workers to use on a daily basis and contextually provide them the information they need while they're working on it. So far, I've been pretty impressed. It's a straightforward yet powerful tool and it seems to have a lot of potential. As the third party tools mature I think it will become more capable of becoming that central location for our folks to work from."

Kerravala said Cisco's effort to create a software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform is no different from what many large software companies, such as SAP and Oracle, have done with their SaaS offerings in recent years. He said the big question is whether Cisco can create its own ecosystem of software companies that are willing to use WebEx as platform.

"They need to start thinking a little more like a software company, and I think they are starting to," he said. "Cisco has historically delivered the whole solution. They make it, they build it. But when you look at software companies, it is the ecosystem that surrounds them that really defines them. Think about Microsoft. People don't buy Microsoft because of the quality of the operating system. It's fair at best. People buy the operating system because of the stuff that runs on top of it. I think that's long-term where Cisco is trying to go."

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