Cisco's New Vision for Telepresence and Collaboration

Last Friday I had an engaging briefing with Cisco about their latest vision for collaboration, Unified Communications and Telepresence - perhaps the largest words in Cisco's lexicon these days. I mean that in the strategic sense of course, as these have been major growth themes for them since last year. Their news was under embargo until today, but I've been quite busy both in and out of the office today, and this is my first chance to post.

We all know about Cisco's Telepresence ambitions at the high end of the market, and they've done a great job there. It's getting a lot harder to find takers in this economy, and it's been just a matter of time until Cisco scaled down the product for the rest of us. They've been going in this direction for a while, but the latest iteration puts it that much more within reach of the mainstream business market.

There are a lot of moving parts to this story, so much so that there were two news releases about it - here and here. All told, this forms the Cisco Collaboration Portfolio, and pulls together a multitude of technologies and solutions that serve to make us more productive in the workplace.

Apologies if I'm sounding a bit vague here, but I'm struggling to share the essence of this in words. We covered an awful lot of ground in our briefing, and touched on just about every form of communication and collaboration, with all of it in some way falling under this portfolio umbrella. I know there's a lot of good value here, and during the briefing we talked about the challenges of pulling this together and articulating a clear value proposition.

On one level, this portfolio concept is Cisco's way of building on network-centric solutions and becoming more applications-centric. Looking at the bigger pieces - Telepresence, WebEx, mobility, iPhone support, integration with Microsoft Office - it's mostly about apps and endpoints - not a lot here about routers and switches or their more recent move into blade servers. Fair enough - we know this is where the growth is, and Cisco has rightly bet heavily that video is a key driver.

All told, there is a lot to like about what Cisco is doing here, and I wish I could convey it in short, simple terms. On a marketing level that could be a challenge unto itself, as the story I'm hearing is mostly about productivity and efficiency rather than cost savings. I don't want to sound too pedestrian, but saving money seems to be the big - and sometimes only - thing people I'm in contact with want to talk about right now.

Cisco does not chase these cost-driven businesses as a matter of course, but it's harder to be picky these days. That said, there is certainly an important segment of the market that will buy into their portfolio concept - and one of the press releases is largely built around an independent study validating this.

My main takeaway from all this is that if collaboration and improving business processes is high on your strategy agenda, then Cisco's Collaboration Portfolio will resonate very well. It was great to see a scaled down Telepresence system - the 1300 - and I really loved the Recording Studio concept.

The very first time I saw Telepresence, I asked whether sessions could be recorded. At the time, the answer was no, but clearly it's yes today. During the briefing we touched on some great examples of how Telepresence is being used to record video segments for things like training, job interviews, making announcements and recording presentations for future use. To me, that's what makes this technology cool - enabling new ways of working that could not be done before. Not to mention in Hi Def.

To balance out this post, my main caveat is that if it's this complex to explain, then it's too complex for the market. Maybe not all the market, but a big piece, I'd say. I know Cisco has a good idea here and the right idea, but it takes a bit of effort to understand all the pieces and how they fit together. That's fine - it's an emerging space, and nobody has figured it out, so it's hard to expect the precision of Procter & Gamble here. That time will come, I'm sure, but we're not there yet.

On another level, of course, this is tricky territory in that Cisco is extending its market presence into areas that have usually been the domain of their partners, and invariably conflicts will arise - not just with these partners, but the channels and enterprises themselves. I don't have an easy answer to all of this other than saying business is business, and if Cisco has what the market wants, they must be doing something right.