Greg Enright: The grass is always greener

One of the bigger trends you’ll be hearing a lot about throughout 2003 is the attempts of traditional voice equipment vendors to push into the data gear market, and vice versa. Witness, for example, the noise being made by Nortel Networks about moving beyond its traditional carrier customer base and selling its stuff to the enterprise.

And if you’ve heard any Cisco Systems Ltd. strategists talk lately, you’ve probably learned that the IP vision that has led the firm to staggering dominance in the enterprise world is now being pitched to the carrier community.

How successful will these “cross-training” manoeuvers be? In the short term, probably not very. If any resounding success is to be seen, it will occur in the long term, and that, like every other long-term prediction in the datacom industry, is hardly a certainty.

This year, two primary factors will limit the extent to which these companies find success on the other side of the fence. The first centres around the entrenched buying habits that customers already enjoy with their traditional vendors and their unwillingness to fix something that doesn’t appear to be broke.

This reality is particularly acute in the telco space, where carriers have been dealing with the likes of Nortel and Lucent Technologies Inc. for decades. The customers know how the vendors operate, and long-standing relationships built up over a number of years are unlikely to be thrown away overnight.

The same holds true for customers who have built up trust with a company like Cisco – why take a chance with a relatively unknown entity like Nortel when Cisco is doing the job just fine?

The other factor limiting these pushes is customers’ tightened IT spending budgets. Much to the vendors’ collective chagrin, this reality is like a bad cold that just won’t go away. Take your typical competitive local exchange carrier, for instance: racked by slothful demand for many of its offerings, their human resources hatchets now dulled from so many layoffs, there isn’t much room left for dreaming about a launch of newfangled IP services – which their customers probably have little interest in at the moment anyway. Throw in the fact that many carriers and enterprises recently upgraded much of their infrastructure to counter the Y2K threat, and it all adds up to corporate wallets being locked as tightly as Fort Knox.

If a guess about the long-term picture is to be hazarded, on paper it seems Cisco might be the most likely participant to make this territorial leap a success. In the recent past, the voice vendors’ core businesses were rattled as hard as a scarecrow in a tornado, and the after-effects of that storm are still being felt. They are still working overtime to make sure that foundation stays intact.

Such is not the case for Cisco. While the telecom turmoil was happening, Cisco was cruising along, happily selling its routers and switches at a blistering pace. With this solid base to rely on, it can afford to take a few more chances in crossing the voice-data chasm than the Nortels and Lucents of the world.