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Cisco Live 2020 - Webex strikes back at Zoom's rebel incursion

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright June 17, 2020
At Cisco Live 2020, collaboration platform and web meeting pioneer Webex came out alive and kicking despite the success of rival Zoom

Cisco Live 2020 screengrab - WebEx no meeting bombing
(Cisco Live 2020 screengrab)

Cisco Webex, the grandaddy of web meeting software, set out to remind the market that it's alive and kicking at the opening of the Cisco Live annual conference yesterday. Webex Meetings is now part of a product family that also includes Webex Teams, a collaboration platform that competes with Slack and Microsoft Teams. Yesterday saw several new product features announced or previewed, while the Webex business unit revealed a key hire from content collaboration vendor Box.

The event included frequent competitive barbs aimed at Zoom, the popular video conferencing app that has rocketed to popularity during the remote working boom sparked by the COVID-19 lockdown. Webex has been enabling online voice and video meetings since 1999 and rapidly became a business staple of remote sales meetings and software product demos, becoming part of Cisco in 2007 in a $3.2 billion acquisition. But its younger rival's ease of adoption and use has seen Webex eclipsed during the pandemic by Zoom, which saw meeting minutes spike 20x between January and April to around 170 billion, while Webex merely tripled from a similar starting point to around 25 billion meeting minutes. It must have been hard to watch Zoom's sudden rise, but Cisco plans to hold on to its customers by emphasizing its superior security, as Webex CMO Aruna Ravichandran explained yesterday:

Security is a huge part of our DNA. It's built into our product right from the beginning. It's not just bolted on as an afterthought. You'll hear more about security later today, but know that, while others can host happy hours, when real work needs to happen, Webex is the most secure solution on the planet.

Framed by findings in the PwC COVID-19 CFO Pulse Survey that almost half of CFOs say remote work will become a permanent option for roles that allow it, most of the product announcements at Cisco Live revolved around enabling remote work. These ranged from supporting remote schooling and field hospitals to new networking and security offerings, including global availability later this month of Cisco's cloud-native SecureX platform. Enhancements to Webex included a new integration with Epic electronic health record software, improvements to its administrator dashboard, and a new integration between cloud content platform Box and Webex Teams.

Box hire highlights AI and workflow features

Separately, Cisco revealed on Monday that Jeetu Patel, fresh from his current role as Chief Product Officer at Box, will join the company this summer as Senior Vice President and General Manager of the newly-formed Security and Applications business group. Reporting directly to Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins, Patel will oversee Cisco's collaboration, security and applications businesses, which Robbins described in his blog post as "core to building a secure, remote workforce." The move completes March's reshuffle of Cisco's engineering leadership team. Patel joined Box in 2015 as SVP Platform and Chief Strategy Officer, and previously held senior roles at EMC and collaboration research firm Doculabs.

Several Webex features being shown off during Cisco Live occupy ground that will be familiar to Patel from his time at Box. He has been instrumental in leading Box's developer program as the platform added AI functionality and workflow tools. Webex has been developing a similar landscape.

Most notable among these new features is Webex Assistant, a virtual assistant that runs in-meeting. This not only provides real-time transcription and closed captioning, it can also act on in-meeting voice commands, for example to highlight a comment or action point in the transcript, which can be distributed to participants after the meeting. Introduced earlier this year, Webex Assistant is currently available on a trial basis to Webex customers.

Other features of interest include Webex Graph, which keeps track of people's roles and connections to colleagues and work projects. Webex is also building up integrations to other popular digital teamwork tools, including Slack, Microsoft Teams and work management platforms such as Atlassian Jira, Trello and ServiceNow, cementing its place in the collaborative canvas of enterprise digital teamwork.

Cisco engineering resources bolster Webex

Cisco brings other strengths that the likes of Slack and Box have no access to. The vendor has been working hard in recent years to integrate its various tools and platforms more closely together, so that Webex now interacts more seamlessly with its telecoms and networking products. Cisco also offers meeting room systems as well as a dedicated collaboration device for home or office desktop use called the Webex Desk Pro. In these days of social distancing and remote work, its administrator console includes the ability to track and analyze office meeting room usage. It can also alert administrators when quality-of-service issues affect web meetings with high-ranking attendees, allowing them to remotely provide 'white-glove' assistance.

Cisco's $50 billion revenue organization also brings engineering resources that smaller rivals can only dream of. While Zoom struggles to work out how it's going to roll out end-to-end encryption to its user base, Webex offers a range of encryption options, including private keys. On video quality, this summer it will offer production support in Webex Meetings for AV1, a new codec that promises up to 9x better quality on low bandwidth connections, based on standards developed in alliance with other companies including Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Intel.

The downside to all this engineering resource is that there's still a ways to go before Cisco has finished integrating its product portfolio. While Webex has been touting long-overdue ease-of-use features that are soon coming to Webex Meetings — including the ability to preview video before entering a meeting, starting meetings by default in grid view, and making it easier to see who is speaking and mute or unmute someone — it's still necessary to purchase separate Webex Meetings licenses to get this full experience in Webex Teams.

My take

Webex has been around for so long that it's become a byword for how not to do web meetings, a convenient shorthand that Zoom can use to define what it aims to replace. But the characterization is not up-to-date with what Webex offers today, even though it's fair to say it has had to play catch-up in response to competition from Zoom and others. Strengthened by the Webex Teams product, which has matured considerably following its introduction as Cisco Spark in 2015, the Webex portfolio is now a solid player in the digital teamwork landscape. It may not have the sex-appeal of Slack and Zoom, but it has the credibility of the Cisco brand, which counts for a lot when IT decision makers are signing the checks.

Webex has also done a good job of supporting its customers through the COVID-19 crisis. This week's event has plenty of customer testimony from the likes of sportswear brand Under Armour and Perkins County School District in Florida, both of whom had fortuitously rolled out Webex just ahead of the COVID-19 lockdown coming into effect. Zoom's ease-of-use helped drive a spike in usage, but many of those new users will never end up enrolling for a paid plan. Webex may not have seen a spike on the same scale, but by looking after customers that were relying on its service, it has reinforced loyalty that Zoom is still in the early days of building among its enterprise customer base. Webex is far more likely to hold onto that 3x increase in usage than Zoom to its 20x surge.

The recruitment of Patel brings in valuable expertise and connections that should help Webex continue modernizing its proposition. Cisco has a formidable developer community that, given the right tools, can make a big impact. Tl;dr, don't write off Webex just yet.

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