This is really a preemptive cannonball fired at Google.
Cisco had two choices. Either accept being the dumb pipe, a.k.a. network infrastructure supplier, for the coming age of SaaS and other Web 2.0 applications, or enter the fray and offer services as well as infrastructure.
This acquisition obviously gives us the answer to what Cisco wants to be. WebEx, most widely known for its video conferencing capabilities, also has a very strong hosted application suite, WebEx WebOffice, offering the same calendaring, e-mail, and collaboration tools that Google has.
Watch for Cisco to upgrade its desktop collaboration package with desktop tools like word processing, spreadsheet, and presentations within the year, maybe with OpenOffice. At that point, Cisco will combine these applications with their collaboration and unified communications, and you have a killer desktop with just about everything you need.
And what is not widely known is that WebEx also has a business doing on-demand desktop management. For this it partners with a company called EverDream.
The desktop management technology lets them take control of the desktop for security and virus protection upgrades, patch installation, and help desk.
"For Cisco this may be the more interesting part of the acquisition than video conferencing," according to Josh Greenbaum, principle at Enterprise Applications Consulting.
Google will have its work cut out for it. First, it will have to partner or buy a company that can offer the same high-value unified communications platform that Cisco offers, made even stronger by a recent partnership with IBM.
But as far as desktop management goes, it might be a bit of a stretch for a company known for its search capabilties. Cisco, on the other hand, is at heart an infrastructure company. For it, managing the desktop, especially when the network is its heartbeat, is a logical addition.
At the end of the day, this kind of comprehensive offering will allow the user to live within the desktop application environment, hardly ever having the need to venture into the outside world of an operating system.
This is the promise of Web 2.0. A pared-down and simplified OS that works in the background, more like an embedded operating system that you might find in simpler devices like calculators or even refrigerators, is all that will be needed.
Now for the real irony in all this. While Microsoft can offer the unified communications and the collaboration, what it can't offer is Web-based desktop applications like word processing, spreadsheet, and presentations. Microsoft Office is quickly becoming an albatross around its neck.
Microsoft will have a hard time transforming a business model built on that premise to one designed for software as a service, especially when its competitors offer the same functionality for free!
Meanwhile, Cisco knows that the world is moving rapidly toward a collaborative desktop environment that will finally take the complexity out of computing.
Cisco's WebEx acquisition shows us that Cisco understands that in the future, Google, not Microsoft, will be its real competitor.
We have a podcast interview with Charles Giancarlo, Cisco's chief development officer. When you listen to this interview you will hear Giancarlo downlplay any ambitions to offer applications on the desktop but either Giancarlo is being less than forthcoming or he doesn't realize Cisco cannot offer unified comunications and collaboration without the applicaitons that go with them.