Cisco combines conferencing, social networking

Cisco Systems Inc. has announced an IP desk phone with video capability, is offering a Web mail service and has updated its Web and video conferencing offerings.


The San Jose, Calif. manufacturer Monday announced the 9900 and 8900 series IP phones with video camera and monitor, plus universal serial bus (USB) ports and Bluetooth. It also announced WebEx Mail, a hosted mail service available to Canadian and American customers.


WebEx Mail, which has 25 GB of capacity per user account, uses technology Cisco inherited when it acquired PostPath Inc. in September, 2008.


“This biggest benefit I see is you can keep the front end the same,” said Zeus Kerravala, senior vice-president of Boston-based Yankee Group Research Inc. “You can still use Outlook and you swap out the back end.”


It costs US$8 per month per user for users with a standard client, such as Outlook, and US$5 per user per month for the Web mail interface. It would cost an additional U.S. dollar a month to connect it to Research in Motion Inc.’s wireless devices using BlackBerry Enterprise Server.


But WebEx Mail is not the most interesting product announced Monday, another industry analyst said.


“I don’t think it will be the thing they’re trying to sell as aggressively” as the Enterprise Communications Portal (ECP) and Intercompany Media Engine, said James Lundy, managing vice-president and distinguished analyst of Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc.’s social software and collaboration team.


Intercompany Media Engine, which Cisco hopes to release by April, 2010, would let companies communicate using voice and video across both the public switched telephone network (PSTN) and the public Internet.


“It’s going to be disruptive,” Lundy said. “It will have a big impact on allowing enterprises to lower costs.”


With Monday’s announcements, Cisco is trying to sell to companies concerned about interoperability, said Maribel Lopez principal analyst and founder of Boston-based Lopez Research LLC.

“Part of their goal around collaboration is inter-company collaboration,” Lopez said. “They need to eliminate any concerns that if I have Microsoft or IBM I can still connect with other collaboration software from other vendors.”


Interoperability was also a reason Cisco is offering WebEx Connect 6.0, an instant messaging service available now for US$6 per user per month (with no team spaces), or US$7 with team spaces. WebEx Connect  uses technology from Jabber Inc., which Cisco acquired in September, 2008.

“Jabber’s main goal was to connect with other instant messaging clients,” Lopez said. “Cisco was trying to set themselves up so they can take in feeds from what might be other enterprise services as well as consumer services.”


Lopez said ECP is part of Cisco’s effort to bring consumer applications into the workplace.


“People are moving to Facebook and Twitter and are expecting that style and functionality in the enterprise,” she said. “To do that in a secure scalable manner – all collaboration vendors will try to address that in the 2010 time frame.”


Lundy said ECP will let companies use social networking with applications such as enterprise resource planning.


ECP lets companies use multimedia applications with static documents, wikis, blogs and videos, said Jeff Seifert, chief technology officer of Cisco Systems Canada Co. Seifert added it has an embedded soft phone and can determine the presence status of user’s colleagues.


The IP phones, which are scheduled to ship by the end of this year, could be used by retailers to upload videos to large digital signs. Seifert said. They could also be used for video conferencing in areas where large Telepresence systems are not available.


“A customer walks into a branch or retail store for example and wants to speak to an expert,” he said. “Putting a larger Telepresence screen with 36 inches screen may not be usable.”


List prices range from US$625 for the Unified IP Phone 8961 to US$995 for the Unified IP Phone 9971. The 9951 model costs US$795 and colour key expansion module is listed at US$495.


Lopez said the IP desk phones would be useful in a workplace where employees do not always work in the same desk space with the same computer.


“You may not have that function in your laptop,” she said. “You’re not going to pack up a webcam in your laptop bag.”


Other products and services announced this week include:


-TelePresence Directory, which includes lets users schedule meetings between more than 1,000 rooms with Cisco video hardware and 75 customers;


-TelePresence WebEx Engage, which lets users schedule either Web or video conferences;


-Show and Share, which lets companies record, distribute and tag videos, along with speech to text transcripts;


-Cisco Pulse, which lets companies tag corporate data with key words.


One purpose of Cisco Pulse is to let users find in large organizations find subject matter experts, based on a search of tags attached to intranet posts and Web sites people have used in research.


A company could compile a vocabulary of key words and allow “network probes” to tag content.


“People could reach out and know who outside their team has that experience,” Seifert said.

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