Cisco targets SMBs with 'unified communications' products

Cisco launched new "unified communications" products for SMB customers, but the offerings are really just glorified VoIP.

Cisco unveiled new unified communications products this week. The new UC offerings are designed to take Cisco out of its large enterprise comfort zone and deliver solutions for small and medium businesses. These products might be suitable for SMBs, but they miss the mark when it comes to unified communications.

First, let's look at what Cisco has to offer. The Cisco Unified Communications 300 Series is targeted at small businesses between two and twenty-four users. The Cisco press release describes it as a "complete" collaboration system, delivering business-class networking and voice communications.

For larger customers, Cisco has the Cisco Unified Communications Manager Business Edition 3000. This platform is designed for up to 300 users scattered across as many as 10 different sites. The Cisco press release explains that this solution delivers a variety of features including voicemail, voice-conferencing, an auto-attendant, and single-number access that connects calls and lets users access voicemail messages no matter where they are working from.

Fair enough. Here is the problem, though, with these Cisco products -- they don't live up to the "unified communications" title. They are great VoIP systems with many advanced, innovative features that enable SMBs to communicate more effectively and efficiently. But voice is only one aspect of unified communications, and these Cisco products don't seem to "unify" anything.

While there is no set definition for what unified communications is, or which technologies must be integrated in order for it to be unified communications, I think we can at least agree that there should be some unification of different communications methods in order to qualify as "unified" communications. A fancy VoIP platform is not a UC solution.

These solutions do deliver voicemail messages via email, but that isn't really UC. Vonage has been doing that for my home voice service for years. Unified communications should integrate e-mail, and your calendar and contacts from your PC, as well as other applications, and streamline productivity.

With unified communications, there should be presence notifications that alert others to your status or availability. The solution should integrate with your calendar so it can automatically update your presence when you are in a scheduled meeting, and it should integrate with your voice and instant messaging systems so it can automatically update to reflect when you are busy talking / chatting with someone else and are not currently available. You should be able to call someone by clicking on their name or phone number in your contacts.

Cisco does offer some limited presence info with the 3000 model -- at least notifying others when you are in a call, but that is not enough in my opinion to qualify the platform as a unified communications solution. These Cisco products seem to fill a void left when Microsoft pulled the plug on its Response Point voice system.

Cisco has unified communications solutions -- just not for SMBs. Slapping "unified communications" in the name of a product doesn't make it UC. These new Cisco offerings are really just glorified VoIP solutions.

As I said, there is no hard definition for what unified communications is, but there is at least some consensus on what it should do, or how it should alter business efficiency and productivity, and these Cisco products don't qualify.

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Tony Bradley

PC World (US online)
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