Cisco to expand WebEx conferencing capabilities

SAN JOSE, Calif. — The next version of Cisco System‘s WebEx hosted online meeting service will greatly expand the capabilities of the on-demand product, according to a company executive.

Robert Lloyd, senior vice-president for Canada, the U.S. and Japan, said in an interview here Wednesday during the company’s annual C-Scape conference for industry analysts that the features could range from presence, instant messaging, searchable content and voice collaboration.

He said some 2,000 members of his staff have been using a beta version of the software, parts of which will be released in the next quarter, for six weeks and already have dramatically changed their work habits.

“It transforming their job roles,” he told a panel discussion earlier in the day.

“Our commercial teams, who look after medium-sized companies, do a lot of driving every year to meet their customers and rack up the miles. We have three employees who last year could have driven around the world twice…(Now) they’ve given eyeball cameras to their customers, putting them in constant (online) contact with their customers. Our specialists in security and other areas have changed their jobs: They have ‘mike Fridays,’ park themselves in their office Fridays, [go online] and say ‘I’m here'” to field questions, he said.

Cisco bought WebEx earlier this year as a tool to spread its collaboration and video conferencing technologies. Lloyd is a eager enthusiast for video meetings, one of the themes that Cisco is pushing here. His 6,000-person division is one of the biggest internal users of the company’s large-screen TelePresence conferencing system.

There’s been a 46 per cent reduction per person in travel expenses, he said, and a 31 per cent reduction in overall travel and entertainment expenses.

The cost savings alone make video meetings “a great big payback,” he said. “It isn’t a travel restriction. It’s being embraced by those who don’t like to travel. Who loves the experience of being frisked in a U.S. airport?”

While TelePresence is a high-cost product — the smallest TelePresence system Cisco sells lists at US$79,000 — the company is piloting a project to bring it to Regus Business Centres, a world-wide chain of stores that offer services to businessmen on the go. The idea is that organizations that can’t afford a TelePresence meeting could go to a Regus store and hold it there.

TelePresence is a high-end solution that, through large screens and good audio, is being touted by Cisco as going beyond mere video conferencing.

“Meeting replacements are context,” he said. “Intercompany interactions are core.” He noted in the interview that Bell Canada is a TelePresence partner and Rogers Communications is piloting it internally. Both service providers will examine the potential for hosting TelePresence services, he said.

“One of our key targets is road warriors who are tired of going around the world and going for MRIs to see what’s wrong with their backs.”

Cisco is about to expand TelePresesence from its current limitation of being used inside a company to having the ability to connect to other video systems. As a result, through partnerships with service providers, will come “the video telephone system,” he said — one directory, with calls placed across VPNs and quality of service administered by telcos and cablecos. These providers are ‘excited” at this opportunity, he said, because they’ll be able offer rich value-added services to organizations.