While some — wrongly, in our view — are forecasting the imminent return of the five-day office week, Cisco today announced a new set of Webex features designed to support a permanently hybrid work pattern. Unveiling a new brand image at the same time, Webex is betting on a future in which team collaboration and business events will always have at least some remote participants — and where the effectiveness of hybrid working will be judged on how inclusive it is of those not physically in the room. As Jeetu Patel, SVP and GM of Cisco Security and Collaboration, says in a press statement issued today:
To be successful in the era of hybrid work, organizations need to make sure their [collaboration] solutions are flexible, inclusive, supportive, secure, and easily managed on the backend by IT. The all-new Webex Suite ensures everyone in a hybrid workforce has equal opportunity and voice.
The launch of a new Webex logo and brand identity — supported by a TV brand campaign that debuts today with a spot featuring McClaren F1's use of Webex — underlines the importance of these announcements as a fresh start for the veteran web meetings provider. Webex first hosted online meetings in 1996 but has fallen behind competitors in recent years, most notably video meetings star Zoom, itself founded by ex-Webex engineers. Cisco seems determined to reverse its fortunes, with Patel and Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins today discussing an ambition to become the leading collaboration brand by 2023.
The reinvention of Webex for the world of hybrid work and business events is underscored by the acquisition of well-regarded virtual event platform Socio Labs, which is due to close in the next few weeks, and the recently completed acquisition of audience polling and Q&A provider Slido. These investments speak to the seriousness of Cisco's intent to infuse Webex with a new lease on life.
New Webex bundle and AI optimization
Today also sees the introduction of a new Webex Suite, which bundles the full range of offerings — meetings, calling, messaging, and the newly acquired polling and events — in a package priced at up to a 40% discount on the a-la-carte equivalent. The previously announced all-in-one dedicated remote collaboration device called Webex Desk, designed for use either at home or work, is now available to order and will ship soon.
There are upgrades to previously launched AI-powered optimization features. Webex already includes technology to remove background noise and enhance speech, following last year's acquisition of Babblelabs. But what about people joining online meetings from shared workspaces, coffee shops and other shared locations? Today it announces a speech optimization feature for remote and shared workspaces called My Voice Only, which as well as removing general noise also removes speech from other people in the background, to solely focus on the main speaker.
Another previously announced feature that caters to hybrid work environments is called People Focus. When remote participants join a physical meeting, they typically don't participate in the body language, facial expressions and other non-verbal cues that are visible to those physically present in the meeting room. People Focus uses AI to individually re-frame meeting participants so that everyone can keep track of each participant's contributions and reactions.
Supporting the inclusivity message, real-time translation and transcription is now available in 11 languages, including Spanish, Chinese, French, German and Italian, as well as English.
Security is always an important element of the Cisco proposition and Webex is emphasizing its security credentials today by adding real-time data loss prevention to its messaging application. This automatically blocks and removes classified information before it can be sent, rather than having to rely on traditional monitoring solutions that detect policy transgressions and redact the information after the fact.
With wellbeing also a concern as people complain of burnout from back-to-back video meetings, Cisco last week announced an integration with Thrive Reset, which prompts users to take occasional 60-second mindfulness breaks.
The question of how to manage teamwork across a hybrid workforce that's half in the office and half working from home and other locations is front-of-mind for enterprise leaders as we emerge into the Vaccine Economy. While a minority are burying their heads in the sand and expecting the old five-day office week to come roaring back into vogue, the vast majority recognize there's no way to turn the clock back. Too many valued employees have gained a taste for commute-free, flexible home working, while many organizations have been pleasantly surprised at how well they've been able to operate with a distributed workforce. If anything, the past year has not only proven the viability of distributed teamwork, it's also given everyone a chance to hone their skills and processes to make it even more productive.
But the next step into a hybrid working arrangement remains an unexplored territory for most. Having everyone in the office is familiar ground. Having everyone working from home is not so familiar, but at least everyone is in the same boat. Mixing the two is an entirely new ballgame, and there's a lot of nervousness about how to get this to work successfully. This opens up an opportunity that Cisco believes Webex can position itself to dominate.
Cisco had better hope so, given that Webex signally failed to seize the opportunity a year ago when rapid adoption of video meetings technology became a priority for most enterprises. Webex looked after its existing customers, but did poorly at acquiring new logos. It made great play today of having added "800 new features and devices since September," but that's more of an indication of how much catching-up it has had to do, rather than a demonstration of its dedication to innovation (and even then it had to massage the total by adding hardware). Still, it was able to announce a record quarter for Webex with double-digit growth when Cisco unveiled its Q3 numbers last month, evidence that a rising tide does indeed lift all boats.
Yet despite my skepticism, the focus on hybrid work does look like a smart move. It's clearly the issue its customers are raising most frequently and it's a field where there are no existing leaders. Therefore Webex is well placed to build up its presence as a leader here, and its acquisition strategy has added some valuable assets. Who knows, maybe an old dog really can learn new tricks.