Cisco’s Project Squared MIGHT Actually Be Something

Cisco has for years been two companies—one that generated most of the revenue but was focused on the clearly threatened switching/routing space, and another that aimed at high-flying and largely unproven opportunities in “emerging technologies”.  The difference has been stark enough that Street activists have called for a breakup of Cisco so the speculative urges of the market could play the emerging piece without dragging the legacy piece along.

Collaboration, or UC/UCC, has been a Cisco focus for quite a while.  They bought WebEx to get into the web conference space and they’ve launched both high-end telepresence and more SMB-friendly systems aimed at bringing video to the corporate mainstream—and video traffic to Cisco networks.  But collaboration has lagged expectations, and now Cisco is trying a reset on its approach, with what it calls Project Squared.

I’d love to give you a hands-on review of the new Cisco app-based model but I’ve not yet been approved to join it.  In the meantime, I’ll have to rely on what Cisco has said to take a high-level look at the Squared notion and see if it makes at least some sense.

The model Cisco seems to be using for Project Squared is a familiar one; you can get a free app and basic collaboration services over the Internet for nothing.  You can then, presuming you want/need to, buy enhanced capabilities to increase the utility of the concept.  This is very much like the model that some web conference players use, and what Microsoft is now apparently aiming at with its Skype for Business rebranding of Lync.

The Cisco approach seems to be based on virtual rooms, which are of course logical collections of users who combine to create a community in which information can be communicated and shared.  Being admitted (invited) to a room conveys you privileges of sharing files and communicating, something like shared folders in the cloud would do but much more ad hoc.  It would appear that a room can also sustain a bit of context, so like a Facebook page or Google+ Community it is also a way of establishing continuity for exchanges that are more than casual.

The differentiator for Project Square versus prior Cisco UC/UCC projects is the notion of an app, which can be run on laptops/desktops, tablets, and smartphones.  Cisco is framing this focus as a response to the increasingly mobile slant to worker communications, and it’s smart to do that.  First, the shift to mobile is real, and second, this is the most logical way to promote the Cisco shift in strategy.  The first punch of the one-two has to land for the sequence to be effective.

So does the second, though, and that’s where it may be harder for Cisco to drive the market.  Free stuff won’t make Cisco’s numbers in subsequent quarters.  They need to be able to sell adjunct capabilities and features.  Skype, which is the obvious market leader in casual communications, has been able to sell things like inter-calling with the PSTN and “inter-messaging” as well, but while Microsoft is clearly looking to create a link between Skype and Lync, they’ve yet to prove that people who are conditioned to free communication can then be made to spend something on an enhanced version.  Or at least that many will, and “many” is what Cisco needs.

The question in my mind is whether Cisco can step beyond traffic.  Project Squared needs to be valuable to users, and made more valuable by insightful features and extensions that Cisco would offer to augment the free app-based platform.  Those features had better not look like more naked traffic-driven opportunism.  They can’t be the Internet of Everything or the Cisco state-of-the-network report designed to convince operators to buy routers now before it’s too late.

We have file sharing.  We have personal communication.  It’s hard for me to see how Cisco can enhance either of these things in a material way, certainly not enough to build a business on the enhancements.  What is left is context.  I’ve blogged for a long time about the fact that mobile workers/users are different because context matters to them.  That’s the thing Cisco could, should, even must exploit.

There are two elements in context that Cisco could take aim at.  The easiest one is what I’ll call “historical” or “retrospective” context.  It’s a way of reviewing information and getting up to speed, of establishing the framework for something that you may not have been involved in from the first (or forgot the beginnings of).  The second and more difficult one is “situational context”, meaning the combination of external stimuli acting on collaborating parties at any given time.  It includes classic location-based services, conversational context, etc.

Both of these are valuable, but while historical context is both useful and relatively easy, it’s not proved compelling in the past.  Google Wave was arguably the most sophisticated attempt to establish and sustain historical context, and we all know what happened to it.  Google may have some patents strewn around the historical context landscape because of Wave, and the Google Docs/Apps stuff certainly gives Google a bit of a leg up on historical context by providing it a means of introducing documents and versions into the mix.

Conversational context might make a lot of sense for Cisco.  You could certainly link it to VoIP and telepresence, and you could also perhaps make a useful link to the Internet of Everything.  Imagine a worker sent out to fix something, a worker who gets there and establishes a “room” in which a team of experts joins in to discuss the problem.  Into which the “something” the worker was sent to fix also joins.  Collaborative work where what you’re working on also collaborates could be a big concept.

Too big, though?  Cisco has always been known as a fast follower, somebody who doesn’t make the market or take the risks, but relies on its own execution to take it from a trailing position to market leadership after the market is proven but before it really gets moving.  But that reputation was earned in the switch/router space, not in “emerging technologies”.  Cisco might surprise us with what they have planned for Project Squared.  I hope so, because I really don’t want to hear that the “Internet of Everything” has become the “Internet of Everyone and Everything”.

It’s also worth thinking that if Cisco does move more into contextual-linked collaboration, it’s likely to drive the market to respond.  That would generate a class of applications especially well-suited to the cloud because of their dynamism in both traffic and location of users.  The traffic patterns among components could be a driver for SDN because they’d be more data-center-centric except for the access connection.  The contextual link would also promote NFV, because automated deployment and management of complex multi-component applications is the key to their profitability.  Cisco is a network vendor with UCS feet; perhaps such a shift would even induce them to be more active with NFV!