Cisco targets SMBs with unified communications products

Cisco introduced a unified communications system aimed at businesses of fewer than 20 employees

Cisco Systems is aiming ever lower with its network gear for small businesses, rolling out a set of products on Tuesday to meet growing demand in that segment for unified communications.

The company cut its teeth in the enterprise market, but sees a large and growing opportunity in selling to small and medium-size businesses (SMBs), organizations with fewer than 1,000 employees. Importantly, SMBs are adopting unified communications faster than big businesses, according to Lauren Ventura, senior director of Cisco's Global SMB Group. This set of technologies, designed to integrate voice, e-mail, text messaging and other forms of communication and bring them into productivity applications, is a major area of focus for Cisco.

On Tuesday, Cisco is introducing the Cisco Smart Business Communications System, a set of products to help bring those capabilities to SMBs, especially companies with fewer than 20 employees. The debut comes at its annual Cisco Partner Summit in Las Vegas. At its core is the Unified Communications 500 (UC500), a desktop device that combines voice, video, data, wireless LAN and mobility functions. Cisco is also unveiling the CE500, a companion switch for scaling up the UC500, and Wi-Fi access points and a wireless LAN controller. The system will work with all Cisco IP (Internet Protocol) phones.

The platform is designed for third parties to write applications and integrate them with communications functions such as voice calling and instant messaging. For example, when a customer calls, the customer's history with the company could pop up on a PC or a large desk phone display. There are also features for talking while out of the office: Employees can set up their phone system so calls ring on a desk phone, cell phone, home phone and other devices. And if they leave their desks while talking on a wired phone, they can switch the call to a cell phone with a few clicks on the PC, said Eren Hussein, a marketing communications manager for unified communications.

A key part of Cisco's strategy with the new products is laying the groundwork for custom setups to suit particular industries. A Cisco partner, software developer IPcelerate Inc., is offering application suites for the platform to serve the health-care, legal, retail and manufacturing industries.

Cisco has been working on packaging its products for vertical markets and making it easier for resellers and customers to tailor them to particular needs, said Ken Presti, a channel analyst at Presti Research and Consulting.

The new platform succeeds on that count, according to Philip Alfrey, director of business development at reseller Solid Networks Inc., in Modesto, California.

"Previously, the Cisco systems were so complicated that it required a lot of design and discussion up front," Alfrey said.

SMBs have been embracing unified communications as they gain high-speed Internet access and have to deal with more mobile employees, said IDC analyst Ray Boggs. It's often easier for them to make the change than larger organizations because they don't have a big investment in legacy equipment or territorial disputes between telecommunications and IT experts, he said.

Smart Business Communications Systems is due to ship in June. The U.S. list price for the system will start at US$699 per seat, including the network and a Cisco Unified IP Phone.

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Stephen Lawson

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