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Cisco Webex: From ‘Stodgy’ To ‘Cutting Edge’ As Tech Giant Takes Aim At Zoom

“[Cisco] can‘t stop. They need to not just try to catch up, but to do the next new thing and come up with the new technologies. What is Zoom not doing, and what could they be doing, is where they need to go,” one partner told CRN about Cisco’s Webex strategy.

Cisco Systems has rolled out more than 800 new features and capabilities in the last nine months alone to its flagship collaboration platform, Webex. The influx of innovation aimed at boosting meeting productivity, regardless of the end user’s location, proves that the tech giant remains committed to beating arguably its biggest rival: Zoom Video Communications.

It’s Cisco’s focus on quickly pushing from beta to production features that customers are asking for and building strong integrations between the software-based Webex platform and the vendor’s voice and video hardware that is helping Cisco claw back mindshare with customers, said Derek Ody, collaboration practice director for Aspire Technology Partners, a Cisco Gold partner.

“Webex has gone from stodgy to cutting edge in about 18 months and they‘re just going to keep pushing over the next six to eighteen months with acquisitions and bringing out the features that people want,” Ody said. “They’re pivoting from the Fortune 100 enterprise-only kind of feature set to what everybody needs, not just the biggest companies in the world.”

[Related: Cisco Webex Gets New Packaging And Up To 40-Percent Price Reduction ]

Aspire Technology Partners, an Eatontown, N.J.-based solution provider, has migrated several customers off of competing collaboration systems in favor of Webex over the last year. One such client was an education customer that needed a messaging and videoconferencing solution at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic that could handle all classes going remote, said Salina Neuhaus, customer success manager for Aspire.

Together with Cisco, Aspire not only provided a solution to the customer right away, but the firm then provided training for their end users for Webex Meetings, Neuhaus said. “We also allow for open, continuous collaboration through Webex Messaging and provided continuous updates and new feature sets that allow them to use and engage with the solution,” she said. “We kind of knocked the other competition out.”

Cisco this month announced it was lowering the cost of its new Webex Suite, a packaged Webex offering that includes Meetings, Events, Calling and Messaging. By purchasing the all-inclusive Webex Suite, which can include software and hardware, customers can save up to 40 percent off the price of buying Webex pieces al la carte, Kristyn Hogan, head of collaboration partner sales for Cisco, told CRN.

The new features and more competitive pricing, coupled with Cisco’s investments in collaboration over the last nearly 20 years, shows that Cisco is dedicated to their collaboration business, said Larry Metzger, collaboration practice director for Trace3, an Irvine, Calif.-based solution provider that partners with Cisco and Zoom.

“I think it’s really about reasserting themselves as being that forefront leader and technology company,” Metzger said. “If they didn’t do some of this, they would lose out to others. Zoom would take over and potentially be a leader and own more of the industry.”

Zoom jumped to top-of-mind for many customers in the early days of the pandemic because of its focus on ease of use and “fun” features that business users -- just like consumers -- wanted, Metzger said. Zoom was first out of the gate with features like virtual backgrounds and emojis.

“I’m not kidding. I had a customer that seriously complained about the lack of emojis. Who would have thought that a business user cared? I was blown away,” he said. “But that’s the end-user marketplace, and Zoom was catering to that sort of a marketplace.”

Cisco, for its part, has spent the last year remedying that, partners said. “Cisco is now saying: ‘Okay, how do we take what these people want to use personally and apply it to our business application?’” Metzger said.

Cisco didn’t realize the consumer impact that Zoom was making in the video space until the pandemic, said Brandon Echele, collaboration practice lead for Cisco and Zoom partner WWT.

“As everybody started to go home and they started to use videoconferencing for their kids’ schools, or to talk with family members, I think people realized that conferencing doesn’t have to be so rigid,” he said.

But Cisco has really started to shine in the Webex feature department this year, Echele added. “What really excites us is they are taking the time and the expense to rebrand and freshen that image that it was the old way to conference.”

Another big difference between the two rivals, partners say, is Cisco’s robust channel ecosystem it uses as an external sales force of thousands. Cisco does more than 85 percent of its business through partners compared to San Jose, Calif.-based Zoom, which brings in about 10 percent of its business through the channel, Zoom told CRN.

“[Cisco’s] partners are an enormous extension of their own Salesforce. They also allow Cisco to gather a lot of diverse customer scenarios and feedback because the customer spread that Cisco’s collaboration partners cover is vast -- government, public sector education, and Fortune 100 -- I think that’s really helpful for them to have that insight,” Echele said.

During the tech giant's most recent fiscal quarter, which ended May 1, Cisco’s applications business posted record-breaking financials. The segment, which includes Cisco’s videoconferencing and collaboration portfolio, increased 5 percent year over year to $1.42 billion in revenue. The company doesn’t break out Webex revenues specifically, but Cisco CFO R. Scott Herren said during the May 19 earnings call that Cisco continues to see double-digit Webex growth driven by product innovations and the value the platform brings to remote working.

Cisco’s Webex portfolio has come a long way -- especially since last September when the company ramped up development -- but Cisco can’t rest on its laurels now, Trace3’s Metzger said.

“They can’t stop. They need to not just try to catch up, but to do the next new thing and come up with the new technologies. What is Zoom not doing, and what could they [Cisco] be doing, is where they need to go,” he said.

Cisco has been heads-down focused on developing Webex, whether it‘s through new homegrown features or via acquisitions for new capabilities, like noise cancellation or attendee engagement.

“I really believe this is a mind shift in that business unit,” WWT’s Echele said. “They’re not content with the market share they have today.”

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