Cisco Systems is moving the ball forward on unified communications with an announcement Monday of a new platform release. Designed to "reduce costs and increase operating efficiencies between and within global enterprises," Release 8.0 of its Unified Communications System features new capabilities for e-mail,
care, videoconferencing, sharing documents, social-networking, and other areas.
Among other things, the networking giant will offer a new e-mail product based around its WebEx conferencing service. In a direct jab at Microsoft, WebEx Email allows access to Outlook from a browser, and, since the service is hosted, a company doesn't need Microsoft Exchange.
The Release 8.0 announcement is designed to enable "interoperable communications," including the collaborative use of Cisco's Unified IP Phones, the ability to combine on-premise capabilities with cloud-based ones, and the incorporation of video throughout communications.
The new Unified IP Phone 9900 and 8900 series support interactive business video, Wi-Fi, USB and Bluetooth. The latest Cisco Unified Mobile Communicator brings dial-via-office, corporate directory, call-log access, and other features to iPhones and BlackBerrys.
In addition, unified communications services such as softphone, voice mail, and high-definition video can work on such clients as the Microsoft Office Communicator, Cisco's Unified Personal Communication, or WebEx Connect.
For both legacy environments, such as PBXs, and virtualized environments, Cisco said its unified communications applications can be readily deployed. On the desktop, the Unified Personal Communicator offers access to a range of services, including presence, integrated software, instant messaging, visual voice mail, directory access, communications history, desk phone control, high-definition video, and video and Web conferencing.
'A Very Hot Space'
For customer communication, the company is offering its Unified Customer Voice Portal, enabling contact centers to provide speech- and video-enabled self-service in an interactive voice-response system that can be integrated with an existing contact center. New features include courtesy callback so customers can be called back when a representative is available, rather than waiting on hold.
For enterprises, a lot is happening in this unified communication and collaboration space. Microsoft, IBM, Google and others are also moving forward with tools to enable collaboration communication among workers.
"Unified communications is a very hot space right now," said Laura DiDio, an analyst with Information Technology Intelligence Corp. Ultimately, she said, its goal is nothing less than "communicating everything, and being able to access anything, from any type of device."
The real question, she said, is whether a business can accomplish that goal "easily and cost-effectively." DiDio noted that, at the moment, this market doesn't have a leader, but Cisco is putting itself in a stronger position with Release 8.0, which supports a "much wider variety of devices" and video.
She pointed out that Cisco and Microsoft have "traditionally had a very complementary relationship," but now the two companies are increasingly in competition in this area.