Earlier this month, Cisco Live 2019 ran concurrent with Infocomm. During Cisco Live, one of the key focus areas was collaboration, with SVP Amy Chang taking the stage to share the direction of the group. As I watched Amy share updates from the group that took place over the past 3-6 months, I found myself wondering if Cisco had what it takes to compete with the rising unicorns of collaboration: Zoom and Slack.
Let’s take a look at the announcements, then I’ll give my verdict.
1. Webex Teams’s renewed focus on Cognitive Collaboration and Interoperability
Cognitive Collaboration – The process of preparing for meetings, joining meetings, knowing who is in a larger group meeting (facial recognition), and making sure you have the best information available on each attendee right now is a significant effort.
Most don’t spend enough time planning to make meetings as valuable as possible. Those who do, spend a ton of time on the prep process.
With Cisco’s Webex Graph and the utilization of AI and ML to improve the knowledge set of each attendee, (Cisco calls this “People Insights”) it propels collaboration forward.
Even better, these are early days of what is possible. As mentioned, this isn’t the first we are hearing about this, but Cisco did announce at Live that this capability is now available for the whole portfolio including calling, messaging, meetings and Jabber, whereas it was originally just for Webex Meetings.
Interoperability – Cisco is continuing to focus on building their stack to be interoperable between their collaboration tools and productivity tools that aren’t part of the Teams environment.
A few integrations worth noting include Slack, Google (Gmail), Apple iOS and Office 365. These interoperable capabilities handle everything from document sharing (O365) to launching video calls on Webex Teams straight out of a Slack messaging exchange.
The integrations vary in terms of depth, but the chosen partners and capabilities provide the capability for enterprises to operate (and communicate) within different platforms, internal or external.
Additional announcements – like the Unified Portfolio, which brings the product and experience into a common interface, and the decision to bring their on-premise tool, “Jabber” into a mirror experience of Webex Teams – will likely please current customers, but I felt they were more iterative than cognitive collaboration and interoperability.
2. Is Cisco able to compete with Zoom and Slack and/or do they need to?
Zoom came up a lot during Cisco Live. (Slack did as well, but to a lesser extent, given that you can leverage Slack and Cisco together through widely available integration tools), so I want to briefly address that.
This may be a bit of a stretch for some, but I liken Zoom to Apple, at least in the way they have won over users by being exceptionally easy to use. Think iPhone versus Blackberry: Regardless of how IT felt about both, executives preferred the simplicity of the interface, and so Apple ultimately won. I sense a similar dynamic at play here, even if the outcome is far from having been decided.
For Cisco, I think the challenge lately has been complacency: For the past few years, Cisco hasn’t focused as much on simplicity, user experience and interoperability as they probably should have.
Zoom and Slack were quick to capitalize on this, and both have gained market share as a result. However, in the big picture of Collaboration with a capital C, both are blips in comparison to Cisco. Zoom and Slack are also extremely limited in their capabilities, making them less attractive to the enterprise.
Additionally, where Zoom’s appeal is perhaps emotional, Cisco’s appeal is rooted in its expansive business logic.
Cisco has built an end to end architecture encompassing collaboration from the board room to the mobile device. They offer complete unified communications, telephony and contact center, both on premises and in the cloud.
They are a proven, known quantity, trusted by the CIO, and with deep roots in the Datacenter. From that perspective, there is no comparison to me made between Cisco and Zoom.
And yet, when you look at the Webex Teams app versus Zoom and Slack, they look and feel rather similar. Despite Cisco’s pedigree and much more robust back end, Zoom and Slack have capitalized on the slickness and elegant utility of their user-facing front-ends.
It is no surprise that Zoom is on fire right now.
Their stock price and customer growth over the last quarter were impressive, and don’t show signs of slowing down any time soon. Again, it is worth noting that Zoom’s business volume is a fraction of Cisco’s.
When Zoom is growing at triple digits, its total size is still relatively small. A similar argument is frequently made to compare Azure and AWS.
The comparison doesn’t take anything away from Microsoft Azure’s impressive growth, mind you, but it does highlight the challenges that a behemoth incumbent like AWS faces when it comes to matching a smaller challenger’s aggressive growth performance.
Same with Cisco and Zoom: Cisco growing at a slower rate than Zoom doesn’t mean it isn’t doing as well. Size simply imposes different challenges to growth-focused companies, that’s all.
With regard to winning hearts and minds, I have no doubt that Cisco can compete against Zoom and Slack, but Cisco needs to start fighting that battle in a different office: While Cisco is the CIOs trusted partner, Zoom and Slack are classic Shadow IT.
They find their way into companies organically, one might say stealthily, often with no executive approval needed. Cisco needs to find an answer to that kind of asymmetrical warfare, or Zoom and Slack will continue to penetrate its flanks.
The question now is, who wins the scale-up?
On the one hand, Cisco enjoys a Significant traditional advantage: Its exponentially larger product and solution ecosystem makes it a more attractive option when collaboration solutions transition from the proof of concept stage to a full-scale enterprise deployment.
Everyone understands that story. But on the other hand, Zoom and Slack can more swiftly establish free-ranging beachheads across an enterprise, and present IT departments with a compelling path of least resistance when the time comes to scale up. Less traditional, sure, but attractive all the same.
Ultimately, I think Cisco’s track record and more robust ecosystem still give it a pronounced advantage in the enterprise, but don’t underestimate the effectiveness of Zoom and Slack’s unconventional, unicorn-inspired strategy.
As they continue to grow and expand their user base, Cisco is going to have to work increasingly harder to compete, and that is a good thing. This the sort of competition that benefits everyone: Cisco, Zoom and Slack, their customers, and their multitude of users.