WebEx augurs ill for Cisco's cloud ambitions

Cisco's track record with WebEx belies its pretensions as a big player in cloud services, PaaS and SaaS. Despite its market presence, the Web meetings platform has not matched the pace of innovation seen elsewhere in Web collaboration
Written by Phil Wainewright, Contributor

Color me skeptical, but I feel the detail behind yesterday and today's Cisco Live event hasn't matched the aspirations set out in executive keynotes. I like the vision set out by CEO John Chambers of providing a technology infrastructure that (as Oliver Marks puts it) does a better job of connecting people. I'm highly supportive when CTO Padmasree Warrior looks ahead to a future fabric of 'intercloud' interoperability standards — ending lock-in by individual cloud providers — and talks about 'federation' between cloud and on-premise. But when I look at the map of where Cisco claims to play in the cloud, I'm struck by how feeble its tenure is at each level, from the underlying foundation all the way up to both Paas and SaaS, where WebEx is its undernourished poster child, as I'll discuss below.

First, there's what Cisco calls the 'IT Foundation layer' — the underlying hardware and virtualization platforms on which cloud services run. Cisco expects to play a big role here with its Unified Computing System (UCS). I'm sure there's a huge potential market for UCS among enterprises, telcos, IT services providers and many other established data center operators that want to transition their existing enterprise infrastructure into more of a quasi-cloud environment. But I can't help thinking that most of them are missing the point when they try to scale up familiar enterprise technology instead of scaling out to a more web-scale architecture.

I'm also suspicious that Cisco is falling into the trap of over-engineering UCS so that it ends up too-clever-by-half to really deliver the promise of cloud computing. I would be more convinced if Cisco had productized the existing web-scale infrastructure that it acquired with WebEx. But just as Microsoft has developed its Azure cloud platform with a whole new set of design objectives rather than productizing the existing web-scale infrastructure it had already built for its Live properties, so Cisco is shoe-horning UCS into its WebEx infrastructure as a 'new improved' replacement for what was there before. I do hope the disruption will be worth the 30 percent capex and 20 percent opex reductions Cisco is claiming for UCS. These are incremental improvements, not revolutionary and, as WebEx chief and SVP of software and ocllaboration Doug Dennerline confessed yesterday, still not competitive with the infrastructure economies Google achieves.

Cisco is banking so much on UCS that it will refrain from competing in the next layer of cloud services — infrastructure-as-a-service — where all its largest prospective customers for UCS want to play. A wise decision, since it will have a tough enough job winning market share there against the likes of HP, IBM, Oracle-Sun and a host of commodity hardware players.

The next layer up is platform-as-a-service, where Cisco claims to play with its WebEx Connect platform. Even regular readers of this blog may need reminding of the existence of Connect, which was announced by WebEx with a big party in September 2006, and has been barely heard of since. That's not to say Cisco has been neglecting Connect. Though describing it as still in its "first phase" yesterday, Dennerline said a new version at the end of the summer will incorporate the fruits of acquiring IM vendor Jabber last year. There's been a lot of work too with Cisco's unified communications team to add further capabilities into Connect.

But despite all this investment (and probably an overdose of Cisco re-engineering, if truth be told), WebEx Connect remains a niche play in the PaaS spectrum, offering just a subset of collaboration capabilities and no database or calculation engine as far as I know. It also long ago lost, with no alternative substituted, the Cordys-powered integration bus and workflow engine that was announced at launch. Nor does Connect offer the kind of API and developer ecosystem support that other more established PaaS platforms have built up. No doubt a subset of Cisco partners will find it useful for creating specialist vertical collaboration solutions, but to put it on a powerpoint slide alongside Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and Google Enterprise only serves to emphasize how restricted it is in functional scope and potential market reach compared to these other players.

Finally, there's the software-as-a-service layer, where Cisco positions the WebEx application portfolio as a peer to the likes of Google Apps, Salesforce.com and Microsoft Online Services. To spice up the comparison, Dennerline dropped a hint yesterday that Cisco may choose to add document creation and sharing capabilities to WebEx, putting it in competition with Google and Microsoft, but the comment was just an indication of potential direction rather than any immediate threat of action. He also made clear Cisco will stop short of adding business applications that compete with the likes of Salesforce.com. Its focus is on expanding the collaboration portfolio, which along with the acquisition of Jabber, will soon add email capabilities as a result of last year's PostPath acquisition, to be branded WebEx Mail.

It's all well and good, but the process of adding new features seems glacially slow — even the hint of document capabilities lacks ambition, stopping short of full Office functionality (although at another point, Dennerline hinted at a different tack of talking to Zoho, Google and others about linking WebEx into their cloud-based productivity apps). Meanwhile, as I sat at my desktop watching Dennerline talk via the WebEx session, it struck me that the larger Web meeting window of the application was cycling aimlessly through a distracting and vapid series of stock photos, while I was focused on a small video window in a corner of the full-screen application.

For an application that started out in the mid-1990s, from a company that had a successful IPO in July 2000 and was acquired by Cisco two years ago, you might have expected a bit more innovation by now. There was talk yesterday of integrating WebEx into telepresence, of supporting HD video display and stepping up integration with voice applications and status alerts. But why is this still just talk and vision? Shouldn't Web meetings have moved on in the past five years of such tremendous innovation in other aspects of Web collaboration and mobility?

To my mind, the Web meeting vendors — not just WebEx but Citrix Online, Microsoft and the rest — have just sat back over the years and reaped the easy growth and revenues of a technology that has pretty much sold itself.

Despite the glaring inadequacies users have had to put up with throughout those years, Web meetings to this day remain difficult to schedule, poorly integrated with other Web collaboration technologies, absurdly complex to post-edit, archive and search, and still totally cut off from recent developments in social media (how difficult can it be to plug in a Twitter stream widget?).

Cisco may consider its WebEx product set on a par with the likes of Google, but the only clear similarity is the medium over which it runs. WebEx is achieving neither the pace of feature innovation nor the openness to third-party extension that we expect from leading SaaS applications.

It pains me to write this, because I like the people I've met over the years at WebEx (disclosure: a former client), including Dennerline, who I met shortly after he took over the reins. As I wrote at the start of this post, I like the language and vision coming out of Cisco, especially this notion of enabling cloud services to help people connect remotely. Yet despite metrics like 220,000 daily meetings held on the platform, I'm sad to say that WebEx comes across as a meager, undernourished poster child for Cisco's ambitions in cloud services. If Cisco is going to live up to the vision, it's going to have to execute with a lot more agility, bravado and imagination than it's so far shown in either its SaaS or its PaaS initiatives.

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