Cisco Launches Unified Communications Campaign Against Microsoft

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Ahead of Microsoft’s Lync Conference, Cisco has highlighted why it believes its own unified communications approach works best for businesses

Cisco Systems officials are kicking off a campaign aimed at highlighting what they say are significant shortcomings in rival Microsoft’s enterprise collaboration efforts.

Cisco’s initiative – launched on 18 February, on the eve of Microsoft’s Lync Conference 2013 in San Diego, California – includes a survey conducted by the networking giant that officials say illustrates the differences in approach to collaboration by Cisco and Microsoft, and how Cisco’s strategy dovetails better with the demands of businesses.

A modern collaboration platform

The release of the survey results is just the beginning of an effort to mark the differences between Cisco and Microsoft that officials say could continue for several weeks.

“Customers tell us time and again that a modern collaboration platform needs to deliver more than the basics like IM, conferencing and VoIP,” Rowan Trollope, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco’s Collaboration Technology Group, said in an 18 February post on the Cisco blog.

“It needs to offer flexibility and choice in support of trends such as BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), high-quality video, and cloud-based deployments (private, public, hybrid, and hosted). The modern collaboration platform needs to be usable not just by office workers but by anyone, from physicians to customer care agents, executives, mobile and desk-less workers. And it needs to be as complete of a solution as possible. … Which brings me back to Microsoft and Lync. We believe that a solution that’s primarily been developed for a desktop PC user experience is less able to meet these wider post-PC requirements than one that has been designed and optimised for them from the outset.”

Microsoft officials are pushing back. While not addressing Cisco’s campaign directly, they said they are pleased with the growth they’ve seen in Lync business since it was announced more than two years ago, and that that growth is a validation of the direction Microsoft is taking in collaboration.

Software-based approach

“We’re taking a software-based approach to unified communications, an industry that’s been [based in] hardware,” Giovanni Mezgec, general manager of Lync product marketing for Microsoft, told eWEEK.

CiscoForrester Research analyst Henry Dewing said it’s not surprising that Cisco and Microsoft are eyeing each other as they expand their enterprise collaboration offerings.

“Microsoft and Cisco in particular are the poster children for a single-vendor solution,” Dewing told eWEEK. “Both are working very hard to create a soups-to-nuts solution.”

In addition, while each offers strong offerings, neither has a complete solution. There are weaknesses in both.

“At the end of the day, both of these have holes,” he said. “Neither one of them is as broad [a solution set] as they think they are. … The truth lies somewhere in the middle.”

Christian Stegh, vice president of strategy at Enabling Technologies, a UC consultancy and Microsoft’s UC partner of the year in 2012, struck a similar tone in a post earlier this month on the No Jitter blog site, which focuses on communications and networking.

Rapid change

“We would contend that, when a company embraces the full suite of Cisco or Avaya products, the breadth of skills needed to understand and manage the various components is only slightly smaller than the breadth of skills needed in a Microsoft environment,” Stegh wrote. “While the logos on the boxes and CD-ROMs may be different, Lync’s architecture is the sum of the same parts that make up an Avaya or Cisco infrastructure, and can be handled similarly.”

Cisco officials argue that in a rapidly changing business environment that is dealing with significant trends such as cloud computing, increased mobility, more mobile devices and bring-your-own-device (BYOD), their approach fits best.

Laying the groundwork, Michael Smith, senior director of collaboration solutions at Cisco, noted the growth in cloud (80 percent of new applications will be cloud-based), video (by 2015, 1.2 million minutes of video will be sent each second) and mobility (4.6 iPhones are sold every second worldwide, compared with 4.2 births every second).

“As a species, we are making more iPhones than people,” Smith told eWEEK.

In its collaboration survey, Cisco got responses from 3,320 IT leaders – full-time employees with procurement responsibilities – in nine countries, and asked them questions regarding mobility, cloud, quality and reliability and support. The responses validated Cisco’s approach when compared with Microsoft’s, Smith said.

He said Microsoft’s Windows-first approach to collaboration would limit the flexibility that enterprises need in a BYOD world, noting that 72 percent of respondents agreed.

Multi-platform support

Cisco has been working in the BYOD field for several years, and supports a range of operating systems.

“Microsoft is Windows-centric,” Smith said. “It remains to be seen if Office will support other platforms. … [Businesses] need to find a multi-platform vendor.”

He also said Microsoft is playing catch-up in cloud-based communications, giving Cisco an edge.

He noted that in the survey, 80 percent said they expect to get enterprise-grade voice and video from the cloud. Cisco is working with carriers to bring voice and video to the cloud, while some of the features found in Lync – such as persistent group chat, dial-in audio conferencing and interoperability with on-premises video conferencing solutions – are not yet seen in Lync Online, the company’s cloud offering.

“Customers don’t want to have to compromise between on-premises [solutions] and the cloud,” Smith said.

However, Microsoft is making a strong push into the cloud with Office 365, a cloud-based suite of office solutions that was launched less than two years ago, and is still maturing.

In addition, the company released Lync 2013 in November 2012 as part of Office 2013 with various enhancements designed to make communications manageable and reliable, Microsoft’s Mezgec said.

Personal experience

“Communications is a very personal, human experience,” he said. “We want to let people do what they want to do.”

However, Cisco’s Smith said that according to the survey, many businesses are not yet ready to rely heavily on Lync. About 47 percent of respondents said they don’t use Lync for business-critical external communications, while most – 87 percent – want a single number to call for support.

Microsoft’s multi-vendor approach – such as relying on Polycom for video conferencing – makes that difficult, Smith said. “This is one of those areas where Cisco and Microsoft differ,” Smith said.

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Originally published on eWeek.

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