Cisco faces tough competition in unified messaging

International Data Corp. recently predicted that the number of unified messaging user mailboxes will explode from 3.1 million installed this year to 21.7 million by 2005. A seven-fold increase in any business in the space of four years is enough to get major players drooling over the profit prospects, so it’s no wonder we’re hearing so much from vendors in this area.

A closer look at these major players reveals an interesting picture, one in which industry giant Cisco Systems finds itself playing a road game of catch-up in a stadium that’s more familiar and friendly to its opponents. Whether Cisco can overcome these obstacles and hoist the Unified Messaging cup is an open question, but if they do, it will only come after a hard-fought victory.

The major problem for Cisco is that UM technology is so closely tied to the telephone system, a realm in which the company is not exactly steeped in tradition. Yes, John Chambers’ troops have been working overtime of late to make their company a presence on the voice side of the house, primarily through the hyping of its AVVID (architecture for voice, video and integrated data) IP telephony product family. And the company also announced this month that it was doubling the end-user capacity of its Unity unified messaging server; version 3.0 will be able to support 5,000 users.

Despite these wise moves, Cisco is facing daunting UM competition from the likes of Nortel and Avaya, companies that have already sold oodles of voice equipment to customers that are familiar and quite possibly happy with these companies’ track records. To convince prospective clients to turn away from their traditional vendors and go with a company more recognized for its routers and switches will be a tall order indeed for Cisco.

Part of the company’s strategy involves targeting firms that are planning to rip out their old PBXs and install a shiny new voice-over-IP infrastructure. A wise path to choose and one that could garner Cisco a hefty chunk of the market. But with economic times as unhealthy as they are, it won’t come as any great surprise if cash-strapped IT departments decide to hold off on that PBX-elimination plan and make do with what they have. If this is the scenario that emerges, Cisco’s job will get that much tougher.

There is no doubt that Cisco has the ability and the know-how to get its unified messaging message out. If this marketing savvy can be combined with a suite of products that handles the intersection of voice, video and data traffic as well as those the offerings from Nortel and Avaya, there is ample hope that Cisco can dominate in this sector as well as they have in the enterprise networking equipment space. Whether that technology is on par with its competitors is a question that we’ll just have to wait to be answered.