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Cisco's new Webex chief wants to make web meetings 10x better than in-person

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright August 28, 2020
Acquiring BabbleLabs noise reduction tech is part of a strategy to make the Webex experience 10x better than meeting in person, says Cisco's new applications chief

BabbleLabs noise reduction history chart
(Chart and logo by BabbleLabs)

Three weeks into starting at Cisco as Senior Vice President and General Manager of its Security and Applications Business, Jeetu Patel this week led the announcement of the first acquisition under his watch, expected to close in the next two months. Noise reduction startup BabbleLabs will bring its machine learning technology into the Webex video meeting application to eliminate extraneous noise while enhancing the audio quality of speakers' voices. The bigger picture is an ambition to enhance the entire digital teamwork experience to such an extent that people will want to use Webex even when meeting in person, says Patel:

Our goal, at the largest level, is to make sure that the experience you get from Webex is 10x better than what you could have gotten if you were meeting in person ...

In fact my contention would be that when you are actually meeting someone in person, that you will still want Webex turned on, because it can do things that you might have not otherwise have been able to do as effectively through sitting and talking to them in a complete analog form.

Patel, who until recently was Chief Product Officer at content collaboration vendor Box, cites other AI-enhanced capabilities that Webex has previously introduced. These include showing information about attendees before joining, video optimization in low-latency calls, applying blurred and custom backgrounds, digital whiteboarding, live transcription, automated note-taking, a voice assistant to highlight key points or capture action items, and automated distribution of meeting notes and action items once the meeting has ended. These and other planned advances over the next year and a half will provide substance to the 10x ambition, he believes.

This might seem pretty impossible because there's nothing better than meeting in real life. What we've found is, that's not the case. We can make it way better than real life ... We're going to make it 10x better by making sure that when people meet and interact in real life, the experience you have with Webex is going to be better.

BabbleLabs a boon for workers-from-home

The BabbleLabs technology is particularly needed at a time when people are working from home and prone to interruption during crucial web meetings, whether from family members or pets in the house, neighbors and wildlife outside, or passing traffic, emergency vehicles and aircraft. Rather than traditional noise canceling technology, its algorithms have learned to identify the human voice — irrespective what language is being spoken — and enhance its quality while suppressing other noises.

Since founding BabbleLabs in 2017, its founders claim to have engineered "a huge change in what advanced software can do for noisy speech," citing tests that show a four-fold improvement on previous technologies (see chart above). Co-Founder and CEO Chris Rowen writes in the blog post announcing its acquisition by Cisco:

We have been incredibly lucky that our technology is becoming ready for mainstream platform use just at the moment when technology companies, enterprises and a hundred million new workers-from-home have recognized the pressing need for something better.

Patel argues the technology will remove an important source of stress when joining web meetings from home:

People are already stressed about working from home and having a lot of responsibilities they're dealing with ... if you could make the experience in the meeting where they don't have to worry about constantly going on mute — because the background noise will automatically be taken out without you having to do anything whenever you start to speak — the system is going to be able to be smart enough to detect that you're speaking and be able to take out noise.

Those kinds of things are going to be extremely stress reducing for people, and this fundamentally starts changing how the world operates when you start having these capabilities just embedded in.

Enhancing the Webex experience

There will be much more to follow both from in-house initiatives and further acquisitions, says Patel, whose oversight encompasses Cisco security products and the AppDynamics performance management tool as well as the Webex collaboration platform.

We have a lot of innovation that we're going to do internally, and then we will from time to time, when we see some great technologies, we will also make sure we incorporate those into the portfolio.

For Webex specifically, Patel also signaled that Cisco will be promoting its Webex Teams platform — which encompasses messaging, content and integration to other tools alongside Webex Meetings — as its core collaboration offering rather than focusing solely on web meetings. Ongoing product development will focus on the objective of an unparalleled user experience, he says:

You'll see a regular rhythm of constant innovation, with this one overarching theme — make using Webex insanely simple and delightful. Make it really easy to use and make sure that the way in which you use it, that experience is actually better than if you're meeting in person.

My take

We know Patel well from his time at Box and his arrival as a new figurehead for Cisco's ambitions in the enterprise applications space promises to ruffle a few feathers. The renewed focus on Webex Teams clearly positions Cisco's collaboration platform as a rival to the likes of Microsoft Teams, Google G-Suite, Slack and other digital teamwork leaders. But while Webex has certainly been through a transformation in recent years, it is saddled with a reputation of being the laggard in the market and will have to work hard to throw off that image.

The pending acquisition of BabbleLabs and its unique technology will help Webex regain some of the limelight as an innovator alongside these other big players who are themselves investing furiously in advancing the state of the art. But it will take quite a lot more work before Webex is widely viewed as a must-have tool in the way that Patel seems to believe is achievable — it will be interesting to watch how that plays out in the next year or two.

Meanwhile Patel's stance that digital interactions can become vastly more efficient than their analog equivalents is one that aligns with diginomica's own maturity model for enterprise digital teamwork. But our view is that the full benefit cannot be delivered through video meetings and messaging alone. To truly fulfil the 10x ambition, our take is that Webex Teams will have to expand its reach to embrace all the components of the collaborative canvas, across messaging, content, applications and workflow. We therefore look forward to learning more about Cisco's strategy across Patel's full portfolio and how it plans to expand both its scope and reach.

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