Cisco to unveil SaaS based on WebEx, Unified Communications 7.0

Company sees collaboration as driving the next wave in Internet and productivity improvements.

Cisco Systems will announce a new 7.0 release of its unified communications software Wednesday, as well as a SaaS (software-as-a-service) platform based on WebEx that allows developers to integrate collaboration capabilities, video and business applications.

The move signals a strong pushback into collaboration software as it takes on Microsoft and IBM, both competitors having moved into Cisco's space in unified communications (UC) over the past year. "Cisco has to protect its UC strength and expand into collaboration," said Mike Gotta, an analyst at The Burton Group in Salt Lake City, Utah.

"Cisco has been wrestling with how they can compete with IBM and Microsoft without being caught up in the battlefield of dead companies that have taken them both on before," Gotta said. Cisco's announcements also bring it into competition with Google Inc. for collaboration in "the cloud," he added.

The announcements include Cisco Unified Communications 7.0, updating the 6.0 release of March 2006, Cisco officials said. David Knight, director of product management of collaborative software, said the upgrade provided greater ease of use and better interoperability with business applications. Knight has been with Cisco for a year, after spending the previous five years with WebEx, purchased by Cisco in March of last year.

"We view collaboration as driving the next wave in Internet and productivity improvements," Knight told Computerworld .

The new WebEx SaaS platform, called CiscoWebEx Connect, will include mobile client software and Web-based capabilities by early 2009. Pricing for all the products was not announced, and availability of Cisco Unified Communications 7.0 was not announced.

A third piece of the Cisco collaboration vision is TelePresence Expert-on-Demand, which ties Cisco TelePresence technology into contact centers for customer service.

WebEx Connect will include enterprise IM (instant messaging), team spaces, document management, calendaring and wikis. All those functions can be combined with third-party widgets built using open APIs (application programming interfaces.) WebEx Connect will also work with the Cisco UC system, Knight said.

The Cisco Unified Communications 7.0 release allows for interoperation between desktop products from IBM and Microsoft, such as the exchange of presence information and IMs between Cisco Unified Personal Communicator, Microsoft Office Communicator and Lotus Sametime.

Mike DeDecker, network engineer for Activision, the maker of the popular Guitar Hero game, said the company had used the UC platform in two previous releases, which provided the ability to have 1,500 employees work globally and make phone calls to one another by only dialing four digits. The UC capability has meant a reduction in toll-call costs, and has made it easier for users to make calls, he told Computerworld.

In the new 7.0 version, which DeDecker has deployed in production for two months, he can configure routing across multiple organizations with half the effort, he said, reducing the number of dialing rules, or software networking instructions, needed, from 40 to 20 in some cases.

In general, DeDecker said the Cisco software had saved time and money, often cutting the time to configure a branch office from four hours to two hours or less.

Even though he said the 7.0 software was an improvement, DeDecker said he hopes Cisco will unify all the IM platforms that users want to deploy, so that instead of having to run Cisco Unified Personal Communicator, AOL Instant Messenger and Google Talk on a desktop, he can centralize all of them into one interface.

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Matt Hamblen

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