Cisco Systems chasing Zoom with revamped Webex Suite

With competitors pushing hard in the marketplace, Cisco unveils a new look and added functionality for its venerable communications platform.
Written by Chris Preimesberger, Contributor

After watching Zoom Video Communications catch the imagination -- and business dollars -- of the public during the COVID-19 pandemic, the company's mothership, Cisco Systems, decided that its own Webex franchise needed to get back into a virtual uniform and fight for the market share it lost in the last year and a half.

At its Future of Work online event, Cisco launched an entirely new Webex in an effort to regain market position as the world's top video conferencing vendor, which it had held since acquiring the company in 2007. Over the years, Webex faced many competitors, but it managed to stay No. 1. But when Zoom took off in 2020 under co-founder, CEO and former Webex product manager Eric Yuan, many industry watchers believed Webex's best days were behind it.

In the U.S., Zoom currently owns 60% of the online videoconferencing market share and rising. Globally, Zoom handles about  300 million daily meeting participants. The top 10 competitors into Zoom are Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Skype, Webex, RingCentral, 8x8, Fuze, LogMeIn, Mitel, and Vonage, roughly in that order.

Globally, however, the story is different. A total of 41 countries -- including Poland, Iceland, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates, each with a ruling market share of more than 40% -- said Microsoft Teams was the No. 1 go-to digital meeting platform over Zoom, which is said to be reformulating its global marketing strategy.

No. 3 in the global market is Google Meet, with 21 countries -- such as Denmark, Italy,  and Romania -- choosing the platform. In fourth place is Skype, which saw the biggest loss with a 25.8% drop year-over-year in market share in a March 2021 study. In that poll, Zoom was named the most popular virtual call/meeting platform in the world and ranked No. 1 in 44 of the 118 countries polled. 

List of new features

To bolster its standing in this active market, Cisco on June 8 announced a list of new features designed to make hybrid working -- from home and/or office -- easier. In some recent research, Cisco found that prior to the pandemic, only 8% of meetings had at least one virtual participant. Looking ahead, that number is expected to grow to a whopping 98%, Cisco said. Clearly, hybridization is the way of the future, the company said.

Cisco on June 8 announced the following improvements, which are expected to be rolled out by midsummer:

  • New pricing: Webex will now be sold as a suite, in which customers will have access to everything Webex -- including meetings, calling, messaging, polling, and events--for one price.  Exact pricing will vary by customers, channel partner, and other factors; customers should expect to pay about 40% less than purchasing things a-la-carte, Cisco said. 
  • End-to-end events: The term "event" is broad and can include everything from a small meeting to webinars to a large conference. The events portion of Webex includes all of the above, with the large event experience being powered by IP from its  Socio Labs acquisition
  • Audience interaction tools: One of the more compelling event features comes from the Slido acquisition because it brings audience engagement capabilities such as polling, quizzes, and Q&A. These can also be used in live events for a speaker to interact with the audience more efficiently. 
  • Audio intelligence: Building upon Webex's current noise removal and speech enhancement capabilities, Cisco said users will have the new ability of speech optimization for remote and shared workspaces through My Voice Only to eliminate background noise -- including speech from people in the background -- and solely focus on the main speaker. 
  • Camera intelligence: Earlier this year, Cisco announced People Focus, which uses machine learning and AI to individually re-frame meeting participants who are spread across a meeting room, allowing remote participants to feel more connected and everyone in the meeting to benefit from seeing body language, facial expressions and more. 
  • New devices: The Webex Desk is an all-in-one collaboration device designed for desks at work or home. Immersive collaboration experiences are delivered via touch interactions in the Webex RoomOS that connects workflows with less context switching. The Webex Assistant Skills platform opens a group of voice-powered extensions to integrate more controls, content, and applications for Webex devices.  
  • Secure experiences: Real-time data loss prevention (DLP) for Webex, which automatically blocks and removes confidential information, will be available in Messaging. With real-time DLP, users are prohibited from posting classified content rather than redacting or deleting content after it is posted. Additionally, European Webex customers will be able to host and process their content within the EU. Webex users will also benefit from the improved end-to-end encryption options. 

Usability needed an upgrade

Analyst Zeus Kerravala, principal at ZK Research who follows Cisco closely, said he believes Webex certainly had areas of strength--such as security and scale -- but it clearly lagged behind many of the upstarts in usability.

"It didn't have many of the whiz-bang features -- such as virtual backgrounds -- that users seemed to like," Kerravala said. "Since then, the company has come roaring back and has quickly and methodically added feature after feature. Over the past nine months, Cisco has added more than 800 new features to Webex and added capabilities through four acquisitions, which include BabbleLabs (noise reduction), immobile (contact center intelligence), Slido (audience interaction), and Socio (events platform)."

Kerravala said that hybrid working is here to stay. 

"This puts an emphasis on workers' ability to collaborate with one another," Kerravala said. "Historically, the collaboration industry has been filled with disjointed tools that force users to be the integration point. The new Webex removes much of the heavy lifting and creates an experience that is easy, yet full-featured and secure."

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