This may be the biggest thing to hit the business video industry since Cisco purchased Tandberg in 2010 for $3.3 billion.
There is plenty to talk about here, and I think we will be discussing the ramifications and fallout from this event for years to come. The analyst community is already abuzz with many great articles about the market implications and nuances of the transaction itself. While all of this is important, I am most interested in how this will effect the users. At the end of the day, a lot of people are using Cisco’s tech for their daily business communications. Their products, services, UI, workflow, etc. could drastically change for the better in the very near future. Let’s take a quick look at what Acano brings, what Cisco already has, and ways they could potentially integrate and evolve.
What Acano Brings
Acano offers several elements that make it unique in the space. They were extremely early to jump in on the persistent team messaging trend, the client has a distinct and pretty UI, it has some clever workflow tricks, and more. I am a big fan of all of those things, but I think they were all secondary considerations here if not completely irrelevant. I believe 90% of the value of Acano technology for Cisco is just the fact that it is a really great video/audio interop bridge. While every competitive video platform or video cloud offers some sort of interop story, many have compromises (extra fees, limited connections, etc.). Everyone can connect to Acano on their device of choice and there is a good chance they can use their service of choice as well without suffering from a degraded experience. That puts Acano on a short list of top tier, no-compromise, interop VMR platforms. The fact that the Acano client also functions as an endpoint, allowing users to call into other video service VMRs (or even old school phone numbers), puts it on an even shorter list.
We finally have a critical mass of business video users large enough to discover meaningful user preferences. In the old days, video meetings were locked down and managed by the IT department. Users had few options. Today we have choices and we appear to strongly prefer the “my VRM or yours?” meeting creation dynamic. Someone creates a room in the sky and shares a link through IM, email or a calendar invite. We click the link and join the room. This means the quality, scalability, and feature set all come down to the server (whether it be on-prem or in the cloud) hosting these meetings. The Acano server has been deployed in significant numbers, has been field tested, and has met up to its hype. I have spoken with a number of service providers using white-labeled Acano as the basis for their recently released new video services. They are happy and their customers are happy.
Again, there are a lot of bells and whistles attached to an Acano VMR, but the bottom line is it creates stable business quality meetings with great interop. By great interop I don’t just mean basic connectivity from different devices and services, I mean the VMR supports a great experience regardless of how someone connects. Their Skype4B “dual home” feature is a showcase example of the no-compromise interop concept.
Cisco’s Business Video Problem
When Rowan Trollope came on board as VP & GM of Cisco’s Collaboration Technology Group he inherited a bit of a headache. No fault to previous management (ironically, the CEO of Acano was the last person to have Rowan’s job), but the industry was shifting dramatically and the biggest ships can be the hardest to turn in a storm. He immediately applied a new philosophy to the hardware division with fantastic results. A bloated video portfolio was reduced from 65 to 17 SKUs. This not only helped sales channels and consumers by reducing confusion, it allowed his designers to narrow their focus into producing a few killer new designs, rather than iterative improvements to a massive line. The result was a slew of design awards, and massive growth in hardware sales as the analyst community continues to sing about the death of hardware.
One would have expected Rowan to take a similar approach to Cisco’s VMR options. Simplify, tighten up, and reduce confusion. Unfortunately, that hasn’t yet been possible. Instead, Rowan created Cisco Spark, a new VMR option, as neither of the two existing Cisco options could be molded to his vision for persistent team messaging. The sales channel and customer base would be very happy with one Cisco Business Video offering that met all their needs (rather than three). That is, in my opinion, the Cisco business video problem, but it also means there are three potential integrations for Cisco-Acano. Let’s look at the three, pre-Acano, Cisco VMR options in turn, and how they could be effected by Acano technology. Cisco could also, of course, just offer Acano as a fourth VMR offering.
Jabber / Cisco Telepresence Server (CTS): These tools include some of the technology that Cisco purchased last time they sent a massive check to our Norwegian friends. CTS is the old Codian workhorse supporting Cisco’s meeting room VC and Jabber is its desktop/mobile client as well as being Cisco’s UC play. Acano is a straight out upgrade replacement for CTS and could replace Jabber as well. I think Jabber has been on the chopping block anyway. Watch the excitement on Cisco execs’ faces during presentations as they talk about the new WebEx and Spark. Show me a clip of anyone from Cisco being excited about Jabber for any reason in the last 3 years. I think it hasn’t been killed because it does have a large customer base, which would be easier to continue to support than to transition to another product. It also may be surviving because Cisco doesn’t want to hand over the UC game completely to Microsoft, and Jabber still has strong UC market share. But I don’t believe Cisco has any remaining love or enthusiasm for the Jabber experience. While Acano doesn’t have that traditional UC buddy list, it has contacts and presence and can do the job. Besides, Cisco has the cash and designers to revamp the UI any way they want. This makes Acano a viable replacement for Jabber (I bet Cisco re-uses the name, Jabber is a great name), and a very natural complete rip and replace for the Cisco Telepresence Server. Customers of these products could expect big changes.
WebEx: WebEx is good now. It still feel strange for me to write that, because I hated it so strongly for so long. But Cisco made it a priority, put in a bunch of development and finally made WebEx good. It loads fast, the quality is there, and the UI is far more intuitive. I no longer reactively cringe when I see a WebEx invite. If all meeting attendees use WebEX it is a nice VMR experience. And, like almost all VMR product/services it does have an interop story, but it is a very weak one. You can pay to have your WebEx linked to a CTS powered interop VMR, and it works, but it is far from seamless. It’s feel and workflow is very much like two products hot welded together. While Acano will clearly replace the existing interop VMR element of WebEx, it is unclear how this will work and what the limits of this integration could be. It is also unclear if Acano could or should be leveraged for basic WebEx to WebEx calls. Other than the ability to stream/webcast to large audiences, I don’t think there is much that WebEx does better than Acano. Then again, WebEx works and “if it ain’t broke…” Bottom line, Acano technology could easily replace or enhance much of the WebEx infrastructure, but other than the video interop issue WebEx doesn’t necessarily need to be Acano-fied. WebEx users shouldn’t expect dramatic change other than better interop.
Spark: This is the real Cisco vision for video collaboration. I bet if we could look at usage stats for Cisco’s Collaboration Technology Group we would see massive Spark use, and perhaps a fair amount WebEx use for calendared meetings. WebEx should cease to exist as a product, and its functionality should be imported to Spark. I should be able to create calendared meetings with externals, stream webcasts, host interop video meetings, etc. Using Acano as the power behind Spark’s video would be a big step in this direction. It seems like the least natural fit, but it could result in the one comprehensive Cisco video platform for all users. Basic Spark could remain free to boost the user base, and the Acano business video feature set could wrapped into paid bundles. Spark is really the wild card among the Cisco VMR offerings. Spark users should already be expecting dramatic change, regardless of the Acano factor, as Spark is part service and part social experiment. Spark has always felt a bit more fluid than the typical Cisco offering. Rather than feeling as though it was perfected in the lab (like the IX5000) it feels as if Spark is designed to evolve, as the ways we prefer to meet and communicate continue to evolve. Spark could remain 100% separate from any Cisco-Acano integrations, or Spark could become the new UI/Wrapper for the Acano experience, or Acano could simply provide interop support. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that improving Spark was somehow a driving force behind the Acano acquisition, simply because of how much Cisco loves Spark.
However they decide to finally integrate and leverage Acano technology, Cisco still needs to deal with the fundamental problem that there are currently three ways to make a Cisco VMR call. After the acquisition, there will be four ways, as Acano users become Cisco-Acano users. Even if Cisco can manage a quick and painless migration from CTS to Acano, they still will have 3 ways to make a video call. There is already very little reason for Cisco to have both WebEx and Spark. They could, and should, merge into one platform that allows for meeting creation from within a persistent chat room, or via a URL in a calendar invite. We don’t need two VMR platforms to support different meeting creation preferences. It appears to be a business decision (hard to justify moving your paid WebEx users to your free Spark platform) rather than a decision based on creating the ultimate Cisco video meeting platform to serve all users. The same logic applies even more so to Jabber/CTS. Whatever “must have” features are currently found in Jabber/CTS could and should be added to whichever platform Cisco picks as its winner. It’s almost 2016, video platforms should be flexible enough to support all users. I shouldn’t need three or four Cisco video apps on my desktop to make three or four different kinds of video calls. Business video should be supportable by one video offering and not require the existence of Cisco Jabber, Cisco WebEx, Cisco Spark, and Cisco Acano. The big challenge for Cisco is to get these down to one Cisco Video platform that has the best elements of each without disrupting their channels and customers.
On another note, there is something inherently inefficient about the innovation structure at Cisco. On the surface, it appears to be an understandable mix of internal development and acquisition. They have an award winning team of designers, but the scale of their goals requires looking outside as well. This is fine, but there is an underlying revolving door aspect which creates unnecessary additional costs. In other words, why wasn’t the Acano team encouraged to develop the Acano bridge when they were working at Cisco 4 years ago? The time that OJ Winge and team spent building, creating, and running a business to get this great Acano platform on the market was completely unnecessary. How much time was added to the development cycle while they were finding offices, hiring lawyers, creating branding, marketing, social media, etc? I understand it from the Acano team’s perspective. It is better to be paid $700 million for their brainchild than to create it under Cisco salaries (however nice those salaries may be). But from the user and community perspective it slows down development. Over the course of the next few years, the Acano team might have an idea which could be the next big step in business video. Do we have to wait for them to serve their time at Cisco after this acquisition before they can leave and start the next Acano, or will Cisco find a way to incentivize its innovators to stay in-house and speed up development?
Final thought, if Cisco acquires Slack next, the resulting product would be the unassailable leader in this new (and hard to define) persistent/asynch/group-chat/VMR/project-based-workspace market segment. There is some strange combination of factors that makes users favor Slack over others, including very similar competitors. It is stickiest social technology I’ve seen since Twitter. It will be difficult to pull people off of Slack to use Spark, no matter how great you make Spark. Cisco has two choices, they can rush to provide mirroring integration between Slack and Spark’s chat, which puts them up against every other communications platform working on Slack integration, or they can buy Slack (for about $3 billion) and end the discussion.