Five thoughts from the Cisco collaboration device tour

This syndicated post originally appeared at Zeus Kerravala – SiliconANGLE.

At the end of last month, Cisco Systems Inc. invited a small group of analysts to tour its facilities in Oslo, Norway, the home of the Cisco team responsible for its device portfolio — aka “Video Valley” — primarily used with Webex software.

The team, led by Snorre Kjesbu (pictured), senior vice president and general manager of Webex devices, has a wealth of device and video talent dating back to Tandberg, which Cisco acquired in 2010. The tour included an overview of Cisco’s device strategy, thoughts on hybrid work, how the endpoints work with Webex software, and an inside look at some of the coming innovations. Kjesbu likened the visit to touring Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, where we looked inside at how the products are made, although there were no Oompa Loompas.

The tour left me with a favorable opinion of the Cisco Devices Business Unit, and I believe the group has a strong upside potential. Here are some of my thoughts post-tour.

Devices play a critical role in the success of hybrid work

The topic of hybrid work has captured the attention of information technology and business leaders across the globe. However, despite the momentum around it, most businesses have failed to get people back to the office. Hybrid work assumes that there will be a remote participant in every meeting. Research from Cisco presented at Cisco Live earlier this year stated that 95% of meetings will have at least one remote participant moving forward.

If this is true, and I believe it is, as it’s consistent with my research, businesses need technology to create meeting equity where remote participants and in-room attendees have similar experiences. Cisco has loaded its endpoints with features such as background noise removal, speaker tracking and the recently announced cinematic meeting capabilities that help remote participants feel like they’re in the room.

Cisco has embraced openness because it’s what’s good for the customer

One of the interesting aspects of Cisco’s device strategy is that the endpoints work with its biggest competitors, including Zoom and Microsoft Teams. In fact, the decision to brand the endpoints “Cisco” and not “Webex” was made to minimize the competitive impact. The Cisco devices natively interoperate with Webex, Teams, Zoom and Google Meet so users can join meetings across those platforms without having to reboot the device.

When I asked Kjesbu why Cisco is taking the approach, he said, “Because it’s what’s best for customers.” Through native interoperability, customers can take advantage of the Cisco devices but still choose the collaboration platform of their choice.

At Cisco Live, I talked with World Wide Technology, Cisco’s biggest reseller, about the native interoperability between Cisco devices and Teams, and its executives were thrilled with the opportunities this opens up. “Customers want to use Microsoft Teams for collaboration, including a great MTR experience.” Joe Berger, vice president of digital experiences at WWT, told me. “Cisco and Teams’ device interoperability fulfills that need.”

It’s worth noting that the theme of doing what’s best for the customer is a recurring topic I hear at Cisco. When Cisco acquired optics manufacturer Acacia, there was speculation that Cisco would no longer make the product available to its competitors, but that hasn’t been the situation. When I asked John Davidson, Cisco’s executive vice president of networking, why Cisco would continue to sell Acacia products to some of its biggest rivals, he told me that Cisco would do what’s best for its customers.

Cisco makes best-in-class devices

Regarding collaboration endpoints, there are many options for customers to choose from. I’ve tested many of them and, in my experience, Cisco endpoints perform best. One of Cisco’s important decisions years ago was to standardize on Nvidia Corp. graphics processing units across all its devices for advanced capabilities.

That enables Cisco to perform many AI capabilities, such as virtual backgrounds and noise elimination on the device, not in software. And that offloads processor-intensive tasks from the software to the hardware, which makes a big difference in end-user experience. Because of this, Teams, Zoom and Google users can take advantage of the AI capabilities. Software gets media headlines, but the reality is that a best-in-class experience requires silicon, hardware and software to work together, which gives Cisco an edge in devices.

It’s also worth noting that Cisco has, by far, the broadest set of collaboration endpoints, including phones, dedicated video devices, room kits that attach to third-party screens, digital whiteboards, immersive systems and a wide range of personal endpoints.

Cisco is taking collaboration places it has never been before

When one thinks of in-office collaboration, cameras and video screens come to mind. At the Oslo facility, Cisco gave us a sneak peek into new collaboration experiences.

One example is enabling collaboration over holograms. Cisco has been working on this for a few years, and the usability of it has come a long since the first version I saw. Some of the evolutionary progress is from making the glasses smaller, wireless connectivity and better processing capabilities. Still, Cisco has made the experience much smoother and built tools to let participants interact with objects.

It will be years before holograms are used for traditional company meetings. However, it has applicability in manufacturing, engineering, healthcare, or other industries where people need to interact with objects remotely. As I mentioned, we did see an emerging technology area but much of that content is bound by a nondisclosure agreement.

More integration with the rest of the Cisco portfolio is needed

It’s a fact that the Cisco Device group and the broader Collaboration Business Unit have been busy bringing innovation to their customers at an unprecedented rate. At Cisco Live, Jeetu Patel, the company’s executive vice president of security and collaboration, cited a data point that Webex has rolled out more than 1,100 new features in the past year.

If customers use a Cisco device on Webex, the “Cisco on Cisco” experience provides an enhanced experience. What is missing is the Cisco on Cisco on Cisco, where the Cisco network and security portfolio can provide an experience that other vendors can’t match because they don’t own the end-to-end portfolio.

The integration of Cisco Collaboration with the broader product set could result in a network that automatically adapts settings to ensure video quality stays high, compliance mandates being easier to monitor and enforce when Webex is being used to discuss sensitive topics, or some element of location that can change experiences as users move. The company has been aggressive with Cisco on Cisco but taking advantage of the end-to-end platform would give Cisco a unique advantage.

One final point worth noting is the culture and teamwork on display in Oslo. Kjesbu, who leads this group, stressed how important those factors are in the work done at that location. One interesting data point is that in an era where companies have struggled to get people back in the office, the Olso office of Cisco has the highest badge-in rate of any Cisco location.

Many disciplines are needed to build devices, including design, hardware engineering, software development, audio and video innovation, product management and more. By putting these under one roof, Cisco has given itself a unique advantage to drive innovation that outpaces its competitors.

Author: Zeus Kerravala

Zeus Kerravala is the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research. Kerravala provides a mix of tactical advice to help his clients in the current business climate and long term strategic advice.