Cisco's Annual UC Analyst Summit: Save me from Ubiquitous UC

The BrainYard - Where collaborative minds congregate.

Cisco brought the UC-analyst community together in Toronto this week, live and in person—after all, we don’t all have access to telepresence systems. From the start it was clear that the two groups have very different views on how to define UC. Cisco has effectively branded its entire applications business as “unified communications.” That’s how the company reports its earnings, and it’s how it sells its products (and compensates sales people). But UC isn’t all forms of communications that could conceivably be integrated (i.e., unified) some day.

UC isn’t IP telephony, although IP phones can support UC, and although UC is probably better served by IPT than traditional systems. So including your IPT phone sales in UC revenue numbers is a semantic mistake (I don’t think the SEC cares, but end users and investors should). Likewise, unified messaging isn’t UC—it’s a part of UC. Telepresence certainly isn’t UC—especially Cisco’s, which can’t integrate with other video conferencing systems, never mind a UC desktop or mobile application.

(To be fair, Cisco isn’t the only vendor doing this. Recently, I received a press release announcing an agreement between ShoreTel and AudioCodes, “Joining Forces on UC.” But the release touted the integration of ShoreTel’s IP telephony with Microsoft Exchange Unified Messaging. ShoreTel’s VP of Marketing was quoted as saying, “Combined with AudioCodes’ gateways, our enterprise customers can seamlessly combine collaborative applications like Microsoft Exchange with world-class IP telephony.” But MS Exchange isn’t a collaborative application, and Unified Messaging isn’t UC. What’s interesting is that AudioCodes will support integration with Office Communications Server, but that’s not the relationship ShoreTel is hyping.)

Clearly, vendors are changing the meaning of “unified communications” to suit their particular business needs. And that’s not doing their customers any good—they’re just confused by the disparate definitions in the marketplace. It’s worth noting, for example, that the customer case studies Cisco chose to highlight at the event were focused on their use of IPT (valuable, sure, but not UC) and/or contact center applications (some of which incorporate presence info for agent routing purposes, but that’s still a pretty narrow definition of UC). If those customers think they’ve deployed unified communications, they’re mistaken—and they may be in for a surprise down the road, as their competition gets it right and sees the benefits sooner as a result.

That said, Cisco showed off some cool stuff at the conference. Here’s a look at some of the more intriguing bits:

• Cisco has elegant plans for its mobile client for UC, called Cisco Unified Mobile Communicator. The new interface will show all kinds of useful information, including not just presence status, but one-click access to audio and Web conferences; unified messaging that displays voicemails with a quick topic summation of the message; and the ability to easily switch a communication from a mobile device to a PC, and back.

• The company showed a roadmap for its UC technologies, and noted that it will take several years for UC to be extended beyond the firewall to partners and customers—a critical step, in my view, for UC to be truly useful. (But I don’t disagree with their timeline; if anything, I think it’s a bit aggressive.)

• Cisco gave us a peek into how it’s improving the user experience, efforts lead by Cordell Ratzlaff, formerly of Apple and Frog Design (good creds), who wryly noted, “If you can go to Cisco and deliver great design, that is really something!”

• Chris Thompson, senior director of solutions marketing, introduced new pricing called Cisco Unified Workspace Licensing, which is designed to let companies effectively purchase a single license per employee, then deploy the software to as many devices as needed. This is not a new idea—Alcatel-Lucent, Avaya and IBM have similar pricing structures, among others—but it certainly makes sense, and it could save companies as much as $400 per user.

Cisco was a little schizophrenic when it came to discussing the “co-opetition” that exists between it and its partners, including Microsoft and IBM. Although important integration is either available now or coming in the next few quarters, what we all really want is open, out-of-the-box interoperability. That’s not likely anytime soon, although Cisco would seem to be in a pretty good position to make it happen.

Indeed, Cisco seemed to flip-flop when it came to this issue, with one presenter hammering home Cisco’s network-centric approach and suggesting that customers will be best-served by an end-to-end Cisco implementation, and the next echoing VP of enterprise and mid-market solutions Andy Cohen’s statement, “Collaboration demands openness.” Which is it? Clearly the latter, of course.

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