Web collaboration: Cisco and Adobe duke it out

A fascinating juxtaposition of keynotes from Cisco and Adobe have kicked off proceedings today at the SIIA's On Demand Summit in San Jose. Both companies put collaboration at the heart of their SaaS strategies.
Written by Phil Wainewright, Contributor

A fascinating juxtaposition of keynotes from Cisco and Adobe have kicked off proceedings today at the SIIA On Demand Summit in San Jose, which I'm attending as a speaker [disclosure: I'm also on the steering committee for the event, but have paid my own way to be here]. These two companies' SaaS strategies are going to have a huge influence on the future development of software as a service and on-demand applications, so getting an insight into their current intentions has been a great way to start the day.

First up, Donald Proctor, who is senior vice president of the collaboration and sofware group at Cisco — the division encompassing WebEx, acquired earlier this year, and now Securent acquired last week [further disclosure: WebEx is a client]. His primary message is really the same message that WebEx honed as an independent company: "The next wave of collaboration will be driven not in the context of intranets but in terms of [the] Internet."

That's already happening of course out in the real world, where organizations are already working with partners, customers and stakeholders and making increasingly intense use of subcontractors, global sourcing and other non-internal business resources. But the technology has not kept pace. When people ask him who Cisco's competitors are in the collaboration space, Proctor says he answers with a question: "How do most people collaborate today?" To which he rhetorically replies, "Email attachments ... Email is the only tool we've had historically for collaborating across the firewall." That creates a huge underserved market that's ripe for a new set of collaborative products.

Elaborating on that point, his message for the audience here — almost entirely software companies either in the SaaS business or planning to get into it — was, "The next wave of software as a service is really going to be driven by inter-company applications." Proctor then introduced a demo of WebEx Connect, which is a platform for integrating multiple online applications into a common workspace across enterprise boundaries. Cisco pitches the WebEx Connect Marketplace as an emerging global distribution channel for software developers to put their applications or widgets in front of customers.

Cisco sees its wider role as providing network infrastructure for converged business communications in all fields. But as that technology begins to enable new business models and applications, the company clearly wants to woo the SaaS developer community. "When I look around this room, I'm looking at the future of the software industry," was Proctor's opening comment. He later added: "Software as a service is much more than the packaging option that many people think of. It represents a new business model and new ways of doing business, not only for our customers but for all of us."

While Cisco is focusing on a platform that offers a framework for collaboration, Adobe is creating its own portfolio of applications to enable online collaboration. But it also makes a pitch to developers, with plans to make capabilities available via APIs so that developers can embed them into their own online applications. I'm sure Cisco would like to present Adobe as just another application developer that it could welcome as a Connect partner, but Adobe probably has platform aspirations of its own.

One further obstacle to sweetness and light in relations between the two companies: Acrobat Connect, the former Macromedia Breeze online meeting product, which competes directly on WebEx's turf. Erik Larson, director of marketing and product management for Adobe's business productivity unit, presenting the Adobe keynote, said that Connect (the Adobe one) is focused on team meetings of say 8-10 people. In what sounded like a sideswipe against WebEx, he went on, the product doesn't attempt to span everything from two people to two thousand. He didn't cite total users but said that more than a million are signing up for Connect every year [updated Nov 9: it seems I misheard and the million+ signups are for the CreatePDF Online service. Adobe "can't share" its Connect numbers at present, from which I infer that they're still substantially below the million-a-year mark].

The main focus of his presentation though was the recently announced Buzzword word processor and Share document hosting service. It seems Adobe hasn't yet finished rounding out its offerings in this space. "This is an area where we're going to see a lot of announcements and a lot of movement in the coming months," he said, hinting at further acquisitions in the works similar to Buzzword, although with no indication of whether these would be presentation apps, wikis, databases or some other collaborative format.

Like Cisco, Adobe puts collaboration right at the heart of its vision. "Any time you're creating something important you're going to be working with other people, so the inclusion of people into the process is really important," said Larson. Adobe sees its role as enabling people to work together online across boundaries — whether those boundaries are enterprise firewalls, different device platforms or the online/offline split. He outlined three guiding principles:

  • One truth — giving all users a consistent view, a point neatly illustrated when his opening Powerpoint slide had a text overrun due to a font mismatch. "You wouldn't have got that with Acrobat."
  • Roles and control — managing granular access rights and privileges.
  • Context — embedding communication in the applications.

There was an interesting insight into Adobe's business model for its collaborative applications, which Larsen said the company will maintain as free services, without ads. Initially, it is focussing on groups such as SMBs, students and educators, and developing economies — 50% of Buzzword signups have been from outside the US. It will make its money by charging for selected premium services, such as managing collaboration across larger numbers of collaborators, or for API consumption above a certain level. But there is a set of functions that Adobe sees as universal: "We're not going to charge for things that should be like water, basically."

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