March 15, 2017
By Marcus Schmidt
Microsoft this week officially released its Teams chat-based workspace for Office 365. This is a direct challenge to Slack, but also Cisco, Google, Facebook and Amazon, all of which are making moves in the crowded enterprise messaging market.
Channel partners need to have a plan, because business customers are quickly migrating away from standalone tools toward unified communication (UC) platforms, a market GrandView Research projects will be worth $143.5 billion by 2024. Well-known brands like Microsoft, Cisco and Google are angling to capture as much of this growth as possible, with your help, and each brings a very different approach and set of offerings to the UC space. Over the last year, both Cisco and Microsoft have pushed to integrate their UC solutions with other services, while Google is carving out a new market by retooling their Hangouts app for enterprise use.
While the features and capabilities in Cisco Spark, Microsoft Office 365 E5 and Google Hangouts are slowly converging, there are a few major points where the platforms diverge. Important distinctions remain between each vendor’s offerings — and industry, workflow and workplace culture will ultimately inform a customer’s UC platform choice.
Employee familiarity with UC solutions: Training employees and ensuring they regularly use the UC platform are critical to customer ROI. Skype for Business and Hangouts already enjoy widespread recognition due to their presence in the consumer market, reducing training hurdles and mitigating end users’ resistance to adoption. Shadow IT in the UC space is significantly less likely when employees’ officially sanctioned tools are the same as those they choose to use personally.
However, Hangouts’ transition to the corporate space may introduce new challenges. When Microsoft transitioned Lync to Skype for Business, the brand immediately became more recognizable and appealing to end users. In the same way, Hangouts’ pivot away from the consumer space may sacrifice the benefits of employee familiarity for more dedicated support. On the plus side, at its Next Conference, Google affirmed its commitment to the channel.
Cisco Spark, lacking a consumer-facing counterpart, will likely be less familiar to employees and may require additional education to encourage full adoption.
Integration with existing systems: Google, Cisco and Microsoft take different approaches to UC integration, resulting in varying levels of cross-platform compatibility. Hangouts currently struggles with poor integration across nontraditional devices (like connected whiteboards), as well as a lack of general integration outside of a few enterprise apps like Slack. Microsoft’s UC environment is similarly gated, delivering ample integration within Microsoft applications and devices, but little outside the vendor’s ecosystem. While this may be sufficient for small and midsize businesses that rely exclusively on G Suite and Office 365, many larger organizations will need to seek third-party integration support or turn to Cisco.
Spark currently stands as the most flexible UC platform, offering on-premises capabilities as well as support for a varied range of devices, such as room systems. Especially for industries with specific security, privacy or other needs – such as e-discovery capabilities – Cisco’s platform offers a less restrictive approach. Even still, Microsoft’s UC offering remains competitive, particularly for those already in the Redmond ecosystem, and for those who value the company’s collaboration-focused approach over Cisco’s more traditional focus on messaging, voice and video. The new Team offering will help cement that.
Platform maturity and features: Microsoft and Cisco have competed in the UC space for years, while Google is a relatively recent entrant. As such, it’s not surprising that Hangouts is missing features, such as scheduled meetings and enterprise security, which have long been considered standard among its competitors. At the same time, however, Google’s modern approach to enterprise communication, rooted in the same focus on simplicity that attracted millennials to consumer-oriented apps like Snapchat and Skype, may better appeal to younger workers.
On the other hand, Skype for Business and Spark have had more time to mature to the needs of the enterprise market, and are better designed to support business use. While Cisco’s offering provides broad compatibility across devices and support for on-premises use cases, Microsoft tempts many companies already within its enterprise application ecosystem to add UC services to their existing subscriptions.
As these platforms grow, expect each service to learn from competitors. Apart from enterprise basics, Google will likely attempt to replicate Microsoft’s tightly integrated bundle of collaboration applications. Similarly, Microsoft could benefit by walking in Cisco’s footsteps and opening Skype for Business to allow for better external integrations, while Cisco could learn from Google’s focus on simplicity for end users.
Almost every customer has struggled with a subpar meeting experience, whether from poor platform interconnection or collaboration tools unable to meet employees’ needs. Cisco, Microsoft and Google offer different solutions to the challenges of meeting and conferencing, each rooted in their own strengths and background. As the arms race between UC providers continues, businesses and their employees can win with better service and options — if partners are up to speed and able to make the best recommendations.
Marcus Schmidt is senior director product management at West’s Unified Communication Services. Marcus is an experienced product management and marketing professional with skills in creating connections with customers and partners, building channel and community programs, engaging influencers, evangelizing products, and leading successful cross-functional teams including outside agency partners.
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