The big picture: The importance and relevance of return-to-office technologies has never been more obvious than it is right now. There’s a tremendous focus on figuring out how to both enable hybrid work strategies and bring employees back to the office safely, equitably, and effectively. As it turns out, that’s proving to be a lot harder than it sounds.
Like many other vendors developing and selling video-based communications tools, Cisco has been working to evolve its Webex offering into a tool that can meet the many challenges these new situations present. As with its competitors, it has been incrementally adding new features and capabilities at an extremely rapid pace, in some cases playing catch-up, while in many others, driving important innovations.
In point of fact, the speed with which video communication platforms have been upgraded is probably the best example in the history of software development of the benefits that rapid DevOps environments can enable—but that’s a story for another day.
With Cisco’s latest announcement of Webex Suite, the company is taking a big step forward along the path of enabling a complete platform and new environment for future methods of collaborative work. Recognizing that merely adding lots of relatively modest enhancements is a challenging strategy for the long-term, the company is tying together several larger assets into a more comprehensive offering.
Webex Suite combines the video-based meeting, calling, and messaging of Webex along with the polling and other interactive collaboration tools of Slido and Socio’s event and large meeting-focused capabilities into a single experience. The Suite is so important to the company that its announcement was also used as an opportunity to unveil a slick new logo for Webex and to kick off what looks to be a comprehensive new marketing campaign.
Leveraging its position as both software and branded hardware provider for video-based communication tools, Cisco has also made significant price reductions on its growing cadre of videoconferencing-enabled hardware for cloud-based customers of the new Suite. Many of the prices — which, to be fair, were too high to begin with — are literally getting cut in half. For example, the 23” screen-based all-in-one PC type design of its Webex Desk goes from $2,495 to a much more palatable $1,249, and the Room Kit Mini system for small meeting rooms drops from $3,190 to $1,499.
While it’s easy to overlook these changes as simple price drops, I believe that, for many organizations, this could be some of the most important news to come out of these recent announcements.
The problem is that most companies are woefully under equipped when it comes to high-quality, modern video conferencing software-compatible hardware systems. Sure, every company has a few well-equipped rooms, but if we’re to believe Cisco’s proclamations that 98% of all future meetings will have at least one remote participant (and I honestly don’t doubt it) that means every single meeting room or space that a company has will need to be equipped for video-based meetings.
I’ve yet to see any great research to quantify this, but I’d be willing to bet that less than 10% of meeting spaces in even the best-equipped organizations currently have that capability, which means that enormous amounts of videoconferencing-capable hardware may soon be purchased — hence my enthusiasm for Cisco’s aggressive new hardware pricing. To Cisco’s credit, it is working on adding support for Zoom, Google Meet, and even Microsoft Teams to most of its newer hardware, acknowledging the multi-platform reality we all experience on a regular basis.
As you would expect, of course, Cisco’s hardware is going to be best suited to work with Webex. To that end, the company is working to extend the capabilities of its own software offering with Webex Suite. The integration of Slido capabilities will not only dramatically increase the usage of audience engagement and collaboration-focused functions, but will also serve as an important differentiator for Cisco as none of the other competitive platforms have this level of capabilities.
Similarly, the comprehensive range of digital event-focused capabilities coming from its pending Socio acquisition helps set up Webex as the platform of choice for large virtual events. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, it seems pretty clear that no matter how many people do end up returning to the office or do start travelling again for business conferences and tradeshows, virtual events are going to be a part of our collective future for some time to come. They are simply too cost-effective and too far-reaching to be ignored. Tools that can help make them easier to organize and run are going to be a critical part of many organizations’ toolkits—a point upon which Cisco is clearly eager to capitalize.
“Love ‘em or hate ‘em, it seems pretty clear that no matter how many people do end up returning to the office or do start travelling again for business conferences and tradeshows, virtual events are going to be a part of our collective future for some time to come.”
Cisco has also been building on last year’s acquisition of BabbleLabs to improve the audio quality of calls in Webex. That acquisition gave Cisco access to clever AI-based technologies that can remove background noise and increase clarity, even on low-bandwidth connections—a feature that is greatly prized by many end-users.
From an IT perspective, Cisco has also been beefing up the security of Webex, offering end-to-end encryption with verified ID, helping to assure customers about potential privacy and other call hacking-related concerns.
Ultimately, the issues related to return-to-work go well beyond what even the most comprehensive, video-based collaboration tool can provide. Questions about employee willingness, vaccination requirements, company policies, work-related FOMO (fear of missing out), office reconfigurations, and hot desking/hoteling are likely to end up being significantly harder to solve than what the enormous work-at-home experiment proved to be when employees left their offices well over a year ago.
Still, as companies work to resolve these challenging issues, there’s no question that they’re going to continue to rely on the communications tools, like Webex, that have allowed them to succeed thus far. In fact, that dependence is likely to grow, making Cisco’s strong new Webex Suite about as well-timed as it could possibly be.
Bob O’Donnell is the founder and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.