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Cisco Collaboration Summit - Where Unified Communications Could Be Going

This year’s Cisco Collaboration Summit was a step up from last year, and I say that for good reason. Last year’s event was good—all of Cisco’s events are good—but the venue was too small and it took away from the messaging. For 2010, Cisco went out of town to the classy and classic Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix. They don’t build them like this anymore, and to me, this setting did far more justice for what Cisco has to say about collaboration.

The human scale of the Biltmore is subtle, and just like how the Prairie-style setting firmly connects you to the earth below your feet everywhere you go, you were never too far away from people you could talk to at Cisco. It’s a very different setting from the giant Las Vegas hotels, and if the Biltmore was chosen to make the onsite collaboration experience better for us (partners too), I give them full style points.

Regarding the summit itself, there were lots of takeaways, and I’ll just touch on a few here. Despite being barely two days long, there really was a firehose of ideas, technologies and solutions to absorb. I’m not a technical analyst, so my comments will stick to what I know best. For UCStrategies followers, I have to first say that you might be disappointed. There were occasional references to UC, and the same for voice. IP telephony was hardly mentioned at all, and it’s fair to say that not many people even noticed.

Cisco has come a long way on many fronts, and for me that’s probably the biggest takeaway of them all. They have conquered traditional networks and IP telephony, and are doing the same now with video and collaboration. When Cisco stops talking about IP telephony and shifts focus to these areas, there’s a good reason, and that’s the Kool Aid we had in Phoenix. Their collaboration is vision is very broad—right down to the essence of sustaining humanity—and for big thinkers, this is the next curve we’ll all be jumping to eventually. However, most IT managers struggle with more mundane challenges like keeping mobility costs in check or figuring out how to deal with social media. In other words, Cisco’s vision is exciting for analysts and gives us lots to think—and write—about, but most of us would tell you that they’re well ahead of what the market is willing and able to absorb.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing—somebody has to lead the way, and Cisco seems quite comfortable doing this. It’s hard to say who is ready to follow, and I’m sure that was the order of business with the partners who had their own dedicated tracks at the event. Cisco’s vision of collaboration has many moving parts, and there’s no doubt that when it’s all working, we would like to work this way. Ultimately, though, the channels have to sell it and enterprises have to demand it. Selling bits and pieces isn’t really that difficult, but the market still has to catch up to where Cisco wants to take them.

As such, for me, this event was just as much to do with communicating the vision as it was about introducing new technology. To their credit, Cisco does this very well, notably with strong presenters like CTO Padmasree Warrior, Debra Chrapaty—fresh from her Microsoft non-compete, and best-for-last Marthin De Beer. When they talk about collaboration, four themes are constant—mobility, video, virtualization, and the social nature of these activities. While there are some touch points here for UC, Cisco would contend that UC is but one element in this rich, immersive world of collaboration. UC is certainly one path to collaboration, and it can enable many others, but it’s not really in their vocabulary.

Cisco has the rare luxury of market power where they can afford to push the boundaries, and if they’re successful they will set the standard and define the rules. In that scenario, collaboration will be Cisco’s world and the rest of us will just be living in it. If you sense an undertone of looming hegemony here, you’re right, but I’ll save that for another topic. UC is still on their roadmap, but collaboration is the bigger story. We will continue to talk about Cisco’s UC solutions at UCStrategies, but there is a broader conversation to consider, and as Cisco’s vision gains market traction, I have no doubt that all of us will have to rethink the UC concept.

It’s too early to tell what that rethink might look like, but here are some takeaways to consider from the summit. First was the news that Quad is about to be launched company-wide within Cisco. They believe strongly enough in social media to make their own company a living lab to prove it. Everyone I talked to at Cisco was excited about this, and it will be very interesting to see where this goes.

Second, they repeatedly stressed the importance of collaboration being focused on people, not technology. There is certainly a corporate motive here, as Cisco is slowly morphing into a consumer-friendly company, and they need people to think of them as more than a technology vendor. Their video vignettes are very slick and the subtle messaging along these lines is definitely there. Regarding enterprise collaboration, I do think they have the right focus—collaboration is about people working with people, not technology. Building on this foundation, it’s clear why social media is so important. Networks and endpoints don’t care about being social, but people sure do.

Third—even though a lot of what we saw is ahead of the market, Cisco did a great job bringing out real customers to talk about how they’re actually deploying these tools. The examples and discussions—especially Tony O’Driscoll from Duke University—showed how collaboration can be transformative for an organization. These may still be early adopter deployments, but it shows that Cisco isn’t the only company out there using these tools.

Fourth—so what are these tools? There are lots of them, and IP phones don’t seem to be on that list. Video of course is the star of the show and with all the talk about virtualization (and the video technology that came with Tandberg), telepresence is coming to the desktop now, and virtualization will further extend that capability to potentially make video as ubiquitous as mobile telephony.

Video technology is not my forte, but they provided several impressive examples of putting video on all the screens we’re using every day. Not to mention Cius, which they said will be launched in July, and their brand-new home multimedia suite, umi (available now at Best Buy). Building on that, they showed the power of integrating video into various tools like Pulse, Quad, Show and Share, and their latest solution, Social Miner.

This is definitely not the Cisco of routers and switches, and Social Miner is going to be a hit. When you can add context to video, connect it to other forms of information (“scraped” from the Web—a bit scary if you ask me), and share it with your community, enterprises will start to see the value of social media. Of course, to really make this work, you have to have the right network architecture, and that’s where Cisco makes their money. Just like Google uses search to drive Internet traffic that advertisers are willing pay for, Cisco is ultimately using social media to drive traffic over their enterprise networks.

There really is a lot more to explore here, and we needed two days just to take this in at a high level. Even if you only buy into some of their vision, you can’t help come away impressed when you see what collaboration looks like when all these pieces are stitched together. Of course, the downside to having such a comprehensive set of solutions and technologies is that nobody can understand it, the channels won’t be able to sell it, and enterprises will be too intimidated to use it. If collaboration really needs all these complex tools to be effective, it may never take off, and in this regard, Cisco is making a big bet here (they like to talk about making big bets, so that’s their language, not mine).

On the other hand, that’s why they invite analysts and consultants like us to this event. We really are the missing link who can evaluate their vision objectively and explain what it all means to our clients, and for some of us, to break it down in language that the media can use to get the broader message out. I’m really just tapping into a few themes from my notes here, but this should provide enough to show you where Cisco is going and why you should be paying attention. For now, UC as you know it is perfectly fine, but something tells me by the time Cisco’s 2011 Collaboration Summit rolls around, the ground will have shifted a bit, if not a lot.

This article of mine originally ran today on the UCStrategies portal.

By Jon Arnold, Principal, J Arnold & Associates

Jon is also co-founder of Intelligent Communications Partners that focuses on the smart grid space.

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