Cisco beefs up enterprise collaboration tools

New products address areas like communications security, third-party participants, and IT management

Cisco will boost its enterprise collaboration stack with products designed to simplify the way companies secure communications, interact with external parties and manage their collaboration tools.

The new wares, which will be announced on Wednesday at the company's annual Collaboration Summit, signal a renewed push from Cisco in this market, where it battles rivals like Microsoft, IBM, Avaya, Alcatel-Lucent, Siemens and Citrix.

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"Collaboration tools are old and broken," said Rowan Trollope, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco's Collaboration Technology Group, during a meeting with reporters prior to today's announcement.

Younger workers demand and expect collaboration tools -- including IM, presence, video conferencing, audio chats, IP telephony and Web meetings -- to be readily available anytime and anywhere, so Cisco is doubling down on mobility and cloud computing.

"You haven't seen anything yet," Trollope said, adding that the products being unveiled represent "a new direction for collaboration at Cisco."

One of the products is the Cisco Expressway, a gateway that secures real-time collaboration, including voice, IM and video communications without requiring device registration, account setup or passwords.

Cisco Expressway, part of the company's Collaboration Edge Architecture, uses Transport Layer Security and works with Cisco product families like Jabber and TelePresence. Expressway will be available in December. Expressway remote and mobile access for Jabber will be included at no additional cost in Cisco Unified Workspace license bundles.

Another new product is Jabber Guest, which plugs into Expressway and lets companies provide secure, controlled access to their enterprise collaboration systems to external parties like partners, contractors and customers.

For example, Jabber Guest lets companies usher in outsiders via a link on an IM or through a button on their website, so that, say, a tech support representative can communicate with a customer through video conference and screen share via a browser or mobile device. Jabber Guest will be available in January. Pricing will be announced then and will be based on the number of concurrent "guest" sessions the customer wants to have available.

Cisco will also unveil a new technology called Intelligent Proximity, designed to make it easy for employees to link their mobile phones with their desk phones so that they can switch calls in progress back and forth, and export contacts and call histories from the mobile phones. The first Cisco phone to gain this functionality will be the Android-based DX650 Smart Desk Phone.

The first implementation of Intelligent Proximity uses Bluetooth, but it will later employ an as-yet-unannounced Cisco technology that will further simplify the linking of devices, according to Trollope. The Intelligent Proximity for the DX650 will be delivered via a free firmware upgrade in November.

For IT administrators, Cisco has enhanced Prime Collaboration, giving it a centralized management console to control most Cisco collaboration products, including servers, desk phones and client software, monitor system health and provision users' own devices. It will be available in November.

Cisco is also announcing the second generation of its TelePresence MX300 endpoint, which is a stand-mounted, high-definition (1080p) display with a camera, four-way conferencing capability, an industrial "sleek" design and simple assembly requirements, according to the company. Available in December, its list price starts at $23,900.

On the low end, Cisco unveiled the IP Phone 7800 Series for midmarket customers that offers what the company describes as "superior audio quality" with low power consumption. It will be available this month and cost $255.

Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst with ZK Research, said that, collectively, the announcements centered on two main areas: extending the reach of Cisco's unified communications stack for business-to-consumer purposes and ease of use.

"If you look at the combination of Jabber Guest and Collaboration Edge, it makes it simple to allow businesses to extend Cisco video to anyone through the use of a web browser," he said via email.

Asked about the absence of Cisco's enterprise social networking suite WebEx Social -- formerly called Quad -- from the announcements, Kerravala said it could be that Cisco is de-emphasizing the product at the moment.

"I think because of the momentum of Lync [Microsoft's unified communication system], they're focusing on making sure the base of [Cisco] voice and video customers aren't lost to Microsoft," he said.

Overall, Cisco's main challenge is linking together its broad menu of collaboration and unified communication products. "The mission for the company over the next few years is to make these easier to use and to integrate them with one another," Kerravala said.

Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.

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