Five Ways to Rethink Communications

Updated: November 23, 2010

Cisco has long moved on from routers and switches, but perhaps more importantly for our readers, they are also moving beyond IP telephony. When you consider vendors for phone systems, it's very difficult to miss Cisco in the conversation.

Despite having their roots in data networking, Cisco has become a market leader in IP telephony, and they are now looking to do the same in the broader sphere of business communications. To help you understand where Cisco could fit into your longer term plans, here are five areas where some rethinking is in order.

1. Collaboration drives your business. This has been a core theme for Cisco for some time, and it goes well beyond phone systems. You can certainly collaborate with telephony, but the experience is simply richer when other modes are incorporated. Cisco is tapping into larger themes such as teleworking, globalization and virtual offices, and the fact that people need the right tools to work effectively in this new world. As such, they talk about the future of the workspace, not the workplace.

The notion of a physical office location where everyone works on a regular basis is becoming the exception rather than the rule. In a more virtualized world, the workspace could be anywhere, and this requires technologies that allow people work from disparate locations. When people collaborate effectively, they work more efficiently, as well as do new things that were not previously possible.

2. Video drives collaboration. Building on the first point, video is simply a better mode than telephony for collaborating. Video is a more personal form of communicating, especially when working in groups. Voice may be the most intimate mode, but video conveys a more complete range of expression, and helps people better understand each other. Furthermore, video is rapidly becoming a valid proxy for in-person meetings, making it much easier to organize teams, especially across multiple locations.

This rationale is hard to argue with, and is the basis of Cisco's focus on video technology. They have developed an architectural approach - Medianet - to address the complexities of video, and enable it for businesses of all sizes. In terms of the viewing experience, they have solutions for all ends of the market, ranging from telepresence, WebEx and their new tablet, Cius.

3. Mobility drives collaboration. In many ways, this goes hand-in-hand with video. In some ways, mobility supports video, with Cius being a key example. Think of Cius as an iPad for business, with hundreds of applications developed specifically for the workspace. The majority of new applications today are being built for mobile platforms, and Cisco noted that Android the most popular operating system among new smartphone buyers.

Whether using a tablet - Cius or other vendors - or a smartphone, mobility plays a key role in the collaboration experience. Desktop IP phones certainly have utility for any business, but will play a limited role at best in supporting Cisco-style collaboration.

4. Social networking does have value. This may have been the most meaningful message from Cisco's summit. Businesses of all sizes are struggling with the proliferation of social media, especially since so much of it takes place outside the LAN. Companies like Cisco have embraced the possibilities here, and focused a lot of R&D on tapping into the pro-business applications.

Nothing embodies this more than Quad, their social media platform, which is about to be rolled out company-wide for all Cisco employees. Quad is important because you need to integrate social media with existing business applications for it to have real value. There is a great deal of untapped intelligence in tools like Twitter and Facebook, and Quad brings them into the network fold, allowing businesses to harness social media in a productive manner.

Cisco is taking this even further with a new application called Social Miner. This allows businesses to monitor online activity beyond their own network - from customers, competitors, prospects, ex-customers, etc. - and track how they are being viewed in near real-time. This has some promising applications, and I'll revisit Social Miner once it becomes more established in the market.

5. IP phones are not the most important endpoint. This is probably the strongest re-think in my Brief, especially for businesses moving to IP for the first time. As mentioned earlier, being telephony-centric has its virtues, but in my view, the limitations outweigh the benefits. Simply put, the more effectively a business learns how to collaborate, the more successful they will be. Coming back to Cius, Cisco demonstrated how this device functions very well as a tablet, which gives it mobile capabilities. However, it also becomes an even more powerful fixed device when ported to a docking station. In this mode, Cius interfaces with a regular PC keyboard and now becomes a desktop notebook.

Cius is still a new concept for businesses, but this dual capability delivers the best of both worlds - mobility and desktop - making it a far more valuable endpoint than an IP phone. Similarly, as WebEx evolves into a telepresence-quality video experience, the desktop screen could well displace the desk phone altogether. Furthermore, as mobile broadband capacity improves, the same case could be made for smartphones to do the same thing. Cisco is hardly the only endpoint vendor to choose from, but they certainly make a very strong case for this conclusion.

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