Cisco forms new unified messaging unit

Resoundly declaring itself a platform -- not enterprise applications -- provider, Cisco Systems unveiled on Tuesday its internet Communications Software Group, blending its unified messaging and customer contact solutions into a single unit.

"This is all about leveraging out networking position and existing software in a strategy built around platforms and infrastructure. We are explicitly saying that we are not trying to be an applications vendor," said Eugene Lee, vice president of marketing for the new group.

Lee underscored the difference in Cisco's approach from its key competitors, which are also going after the burgeoning unified messaging and customer contact markets. Specifically, Lee pointed to Nortel's acquisition of CRM (customer relationship management) vendor Clarify and a similar move by Lucent as proof that those two networking titans are functioning differently.

"Think of this as Cisco vs the old-world telecom providers. It is a story about the battle of two business models. Our competitors' approach is very integrated. They have been in this business for 100 years or more, and they pitch a value proposition based on them doing everything for you," Lee said.

Cisco, on the other hand, plans to rely more on partners, and as proof of the success of this strategy, the company revealed several new partnerships it has nailed down recently. Those include deals with CRM vendors Chordiant Software, Kana Communications, PeopleSoft, and Oracle. Unified communications partners include Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, and

"The really big picture here is that Cisco as a company is moving from serving a purely data networking market -- a $US64 billion market -- and going after $260 billion worth of telecom opportunities," Lee said.

That puts Cisco squarely on the heels of Lucent Technologies and Nortel Networks, Lee added.

"We are not just competing with traditional data companies like 3Com," Lee said.

Lee said that in pursuing telecommunications-related business, Cisco has vowed not to step on the toes of its service provider partners.

Bill Hills, an analyst at Aberdeen Group, in Boston, said Cisco's strategy of clearly distancing itself from taking on a service provider role "has coherence to it. . . they plan to have a group of partners. They don't intend to do all of this themselves," he said.

"But this is really a relaunch of this division. They want to make it clear what they are doing and what they are not doing. Some people mistakenly thought they were getting into front-office applications. And when Nortel and Lucent made moves in that direction, it seemed to reinforce that perception of Cisco," Hills said.

Part of that misperception came about because Cisco's customer contact and unified communications software solutions were run out of a group dubbed Applications Technology Group, which sent a "mixed message", according to Lee.

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