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The big picture: While it's really hard to make predictions about much of anything in these crazy times, I'm convinced that at some point in the future, someone is going to do an in-depth business school case study on the video conferencing and collaboration tools market---and it's going to be fascinating. It's simply amazing to think about how much they've changed how we all work.
Right, we're all just happy (or at least grateful) that applications like Zoom, Teams, Meet, Webex, and others exist, because they're allowing business and personal communications to occur and companies to function. But if you take a step back, it's incredibly impressive how rapidly these tools have improved over the months since the pandemic began.
It's also amazing to think about how much they've changed how we all work. While they were initially perceived to be little more than stop-gaps until everyone returned to their offices, it's now clear that these kinds of collaboration tools have had a profound effect on where we work, with whom we interact, and how many processes get done. At the same time, the limited initial scope of their capabilities has become more painfully obvious over extended usage and there's been a great deal of work done to make them more effective.
The latest effort to raise the stakes in this hyper-competitive market comes from Cisco, which has completely revamped Webex. In addition to a nicely redesigned interface for the main client application, the new Webex features a host of new capabilities and underlying platform features designed to make the process of working, communicating, and collaborating in hybrid work environments easier and more effective.
While video-based calling remains at the heart of the experience, it's clear that Cisco is looking well beyond these basics with Webex as it integrates more extensive chat/text messaging features, as well as polling and Q&A functions, whiteboarding, and real-time language translation and transcription.
More importantly, Cisco has thought through the wide variety of meeting types, formats, and sizes that companies are likely to need, both now in the primarily work-from-home focused world, and in future hybrid environments that mix together different combinations of remote and local employees.
To that end, they've added more flexible layouts that let you customize not only the number of participants, but also a wide variety of layouts and meeting templates to better utilize the platform for different types of meetings, as well as different types of employee preferences. In addition, the company included a dedicated Events Mode for up to 25,000 attendees that offers the ability to run virtual events with panelist lobbies, breakout sessions and more, and a Broadcast mode for up to 100,000 participants. All told, it looks to be an impressively thorough set of options that are likely to meet many of the different types of meeting formats that companies need.
The new Webex also has some intriguing new AI-powered functions for turning gestures like a thumbs-up or hand wave into icons. In practice, this may prove to be more kitschy than useful, but at the very least, it's an interesting way to try to bring more engagement to virtual meetings. What will undoubtedly be more useful are the intelligent tools for more immersive types of sharing, such as the video overlay of a presenter in front of his or her slides. This is significantly more natural and engaging than trying to find the talking head in a series of tiny boxes above a shared screen. In the new text-based messaging tools, AI is being used to do things like highlight the messages or portions of message the system believes are most important to you, based on learning your preferences.
Recognizing that, when people do start to return to the office or travel, they'll need other options for participating in meetings, Cisco also previewed a much-improved mobile Webex app (expected in the second half of next year) that includes the ability to do things like provide video content while on hold and turn smartphones into more full-featured meeting and collaboration tools. The company also debuted new calling plans that can be packaged together with Webex service plans to simplify billing options.
On the hardware side, Cisco widened its portfolio of devices designed to work seamlessly with Webex. The Webex Desk Camera is a 4K-capable camera designed to be attached to notebooks or desktop monitors, while the Webex Desk Hub serves as a docking-station like device for smartphones, complete with a Bluetooth headset and a large display. Both are designed to give employees more flexibility in participating meetings while also allowing company IT shops to set up "hotdesking" or other shared work areas that are expected to be very popular in the post-COVID workplace.
Cisco also unveiled a new version of Webex Contact Center, which builds on the core Webex platform, but adds a number of customization and specialization features dedicated to the contact center market, including low-code tools for building voice and chat bots, creating scripts and other process-based workflows.
At the core platform level, Cisco described the creation of the Webex Graph, which includes key data on how people are collaborating, the devices they're using, and more. As with any of these kinds of tools, privacy-based issues can be a concern, but the data can be used to power People Insights for employees to better understand how they're interacting with colleagues (and partners), as well as Team Insights for leaders to better understand the collaboration processes within their groups.
Finally, Cisco also detailed collaborations with other software partners, including Box, Dropbox, ServiceNow, and Salesforce to be able to integrate these tools into the Webex environment. In many ways, it's a similar strategy to what Microsoft has been doing with Teams.
As impressive as all these capabilities and new additions to Webex sound on paper, the real challenge for Cisco will be to see how it executes on this vision. The company has had previous efforts in collaboration tools and contact center applications, amongst others, that haven't fared as well as some may have initially expected. With Webex, the vision looks to be more comprehensive. Let's hope the reality proves to be just as compelling.
Bob O'Donnell is the founder and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.