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Can Cisco (of all companies) fix workplace video?

Cisco's Chuck Robbins speaks at the Global Sales Experience in Las Vegas, Aug. 25, 2014.
Cisco
Cisco's Chuck Robbins speaks at the Global Sales Experience in Las Vegas, Aug. 25, 2014.

Cisco's conferencing technology and office telephones are notoriously difficult to use. It may sound ironic, then, to hear that the company plans to fix the workplace video chat problem.

Here's the issue: Cisco's WebEx, Microsoft's Skype, Google Hangouts and GoToMeeting all exist in their own silos. Imagine owning a Samsung Galaxy phone and not being able to call a friend with an iPhone.

"We need to turn video into a global, simple any-to-any communication capability much like the phone has been," Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins told a group of reporters on Tuesday at the company's collaboration summit in San Francisco. "We need to simplify that, and we need to be agnostic about what's on the other end."

The networking equipment giant took its first step in that direction in August by partnering with Apple to turn iPhones into business phones with consumer appeal. It was a critical deal in Cisco's effort to show the world that its software can work on other devices.

But can Cisco be the glue for the vast video-conferencing industry? Last month, Cisco announced plans to spend about $700 million on a little-known London-based company named Acano, which promotes its video service as providing "unmatched interoperability, security and deployment."

Robbins wouldn't say much about the deal because it's yet to close. He acknowledged that Acano's cross-platform technology is "one of the core benefits of the acquisition."

Cisco's not alone in addressing the problem. There's competition from emerging vendors such as Blue Jeans Network and Zoom, which tout their ability to tie in the video-conferencing tools of multiple providers.

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For Robbins, transforming collaboration is central to his efforts to keep Cisco relevant as technology rapidly shifts away from proprietary systems and toward openness. Less than five months into his job as CEO, which followed the 20-year tenure of John Chambers, Robbins has made it clear that Cisco's role is not to ram more expensive gear down its customers' throats.

Quite the opposite. Businesses are going to the cloud, offloading more of their hardware to third parties. Cisco has to help them migrate and let them choose the vendors they want to use, whether in servers, storage, security or even communications.

It's not unlike the task that faced Microsoft's Satya Nadella, who succeeded Steve Ballmer as CEO early last year. In pushing Microsoft to the cloud and promoting its Azure infrastructure, Nadella has opened the platform and proved willing to help sell technology from rivals including Oracle, SAP and Salesforce.com.

Cisco vs. Microsoft

Robbins embraces the comparison.

"Satya and I think about things very similarly in that you have to transition to where the market is going and where your customers want you to go," Robbins said. "If you try to defend your historical positions at the speed today's market moves then you're going to be in trouble."

Whether Cisco can match Microsoft's recent execution without sacrificing the fat profit margins that its dominant switching and routing businesses command is very much an open question. Cisco shares are flat over the past year, while Microsoft has gained 17 percent. Most of the discrepancy is due to their relative performance this quarter.

Cisco also has to prove that it can build consumer-friendly technology for the enterprise. At the conference, Cisco announced that its Spark messaging, communication and calling system will be available in the cloud.

The company has already faced some technical hurdles with the Apple deal. For example, the iOS operating system won't let an Internet call like one coming from Cisco's Spark app create a ringing sound on a phone that's not in use, said Rowan Trollope, Cisco's senior vice president in charge of collaboration.

His team is working to develop a fix, but Trollope recognizes that there are still hurdles to making a smartphone a "fully capable replacement for a desk phone."