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Fritz Nelson
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Full Nelson: Behind Cisco's Tablet Surprise

Cisco's Cius tablet is just one part of the company's push to own the "Social Enterprise," and, with its video-centric approach, another tool to push today's infrastructure for obvious gains.

That might be a little bit dreamy for some, but for Cisco shops -- at least those that have bought into the productivity promises of social networks and collaborative workplaces -- the Cius will be an easy sell. For everybody else, challenges abound, and most of them aren't unique to Cisco. Across almost every single-vendor social enterprise solution, benefits accrue to those willing to swallow everything; but like any total solution, some functionality is likely to be compromised, and besides, nobody wants to get locked in.

In the past several years, we've seen Microsoft build out its Office Communications Server platform, while Lotus continues to grow its legacy as a collaborative innovator. Novell's Pulse has revived a part of the company that was always a mysterious stepchild, and a host of free Web-based consumer tools (Skype, AIM, Facebook) have crept into the enterprise. just launched its Chatter application (essentially a social network for customer-facing employees, baked into the company's cloud software system and easily accessible to any application written for the platform), SAP demonstrated its StreamWork cloud offering, and Cisco put forth Quad.

These collaboration applications start to look an awful lot alike, and each offers its own twist. Microsoft has built social functionality on top of presence and linked it into SharePoint and Office 2010, for example. Novell decided to integrate with Google Wave, using Wave's Federation Protocol. Cisco has said that it wants to integrate its Cius functionality with Microsoft OCS and Exchange, and with content management systems like SharePoint and EMC's Documentum (Quad already integrates with Sharepoint and Documentum; Cisco's collaboration architecture is integrated with OCS and Exchange). But if you want to use one vendor's video, another's Web conferencing, and yet another's presence and instant messaging, it's not so simple. And this doesn't even factor in awareness of event-driven status updates -- not just social status readings from Facebook, but, say, a sales win. Complete cross-platform awareness will happen either through standards like SIP (and its IM extension, SIMPLE) and XMPP (Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol), and Google's Open Social APIs, or extensions to them. Or an entirely new breed of standards.

Cisco's betting, like always, on its own complete solution, according to O'Sullivan. Niche solutions (his term), like Chatter, will simply have to fit into its fabric. Cisco's mission, he says, is to be the company at the center of the collaborative experience, and video will be the key. This sudden social religion, while a newly compelling side of Cisco, may just be the result of the company being a victim of its own success, InformationWeek Analytics editor Art Wittmann wryly noted in a recent e-mail conversation. "Once you've got gigabit networking to most of your desktops and good wireless for the rest, there's no typical computing application that's going to drive the next infrastructure upgrade," Art wrote. "That's a bad thing for Cisco, because it wants the network to be a five-year investment and it's turning out to be a 10- to 15-year one for most companies." He noted that Cisco tried security, but what the infrastructure can't handle is thousands of point-to-point video streams, with all of the buffering that entails, not to mention WAN application prioritization. More video means more data center upgrades. O'Sullivan doesn't take issue with that analysis, but he claims that productivity gains and things like cost savings will more than outweigh infrastructure changes. (For more on Cisco's video strategy, read here.)

All of which looks great on paper, but as hot as video seems, it's not yet entrenched in the enterprise. Sure, there's progress: more telepresence and more desktop video (nary a laptop comes without a Webcam), but usage is still low and the ROI is still not easily understood (a full 65% of readers we surveyed don't measure ROI for any collaboration system and 35% don't measure their videoconference use). In fact, our research shows that for those companies not using any form of collaborative communications technology, the most oft-cited reasons are that other projects are a higher priority or there is no definitive business value.

Techweb's chief content officer, David Berlind, likens video to voice in its inefficiency. "E-mail, IM, and texting all share a part of a pie that might have otherwise been 100% voice," he says. "There's something very efficient about them," He also points to the friction of using video, noting that half of the time people try to get a videoconference going in our own organization, some aspect of it doesn't work, even from the desktop. "For video to be the future of business, it must be the first choice over voice in desktop, conference room, and mobile environments; it has to be totally interoperable (across those environments, across platforms, and across organizations the way voice is); and it has to be as frictionless as voice (dead simple). Today, video is none of these."

But Cisco's O'Sullivan thinks that devices like Cius, and even Apple's new Facetime application, will be crucial to developing these habits. On the Cius, he says, part of the integrated experience will be the ubiquity of the video function, whether that is to start a video chat or telepresence session or to use the device's camera to record video and upload it through Cisco's Show and Share application ("essentially YouTube for the enterprise," O'Sullivan says).

Like any social or mobile technology, most CIOs worry about security and compliance, especially as consumer devices and systems creep into the workplace. That's why the Cius, unlike Apple's iPad or any of the upcoming tablets and sexy mobile platforms, could have a decided edge in today's enterprise. Centrally deployed policies, centrally enforced security down to the device and application level, and corporate-sanctioned use cases may be the accelerant to a truly social, mobile enterprise.

Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.

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