Giants Competing

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For the past several months, the UC conversation shifted toward a Microsoft v. Cisco debate. Cisco enjoys a market share lead over Microsoft in UC, but Lync is experiencing rapid growth. Microsoft has its sights on dethroning Cisco. Personally, I find the debate boring. Both firms offer excellent and comparable UC solutions, but there’s a lot of other excellent UC options to consider. Why limit the menu to chocolate and vanilla? .

It’s a highly charged subject, because both sides have zealots. Technology, like sports, brings out undying loyalty in otherwise level-headed folks. These loyalties can be found in end-users, resellers, consultants, and analysts. The thing to remember is that technology is moving fast. Both the solutions and the problems are changing constantly. We also know that rarely the right answer is the same answer for all situations. For these reasons, loyalty is often misguided. No vendor can be all things to all people at all times.

What got me going was ZK’s post on NoJitter titled Cisco’s Challenge in Competing with Microsoft Lync.  His point is that competing on the usual things like quality, features, and value – aren’t effective with the Microsoft base. I don’t think it’s that simple.

Let’s take a look at some of ZK’s pot stirring points:

“From a share perspective though, the rivalry isn’t really a rivalry. Cisco dominates the UC space today”

There can’t be a rivalry because of market share? David and Goliath weren’t the only ones to have a lopsided rivalry. There’s definitely a rivalry here.

Interest in Lync is very high as is adoption. Diane Meyers at Infoquest reported last November that “Quarterly year-over-year declines continue as businesses push out spending where existing telephony solutions still get the job done….Microsoft’s Lync has been the primary beneficiary, enjoying over 40% sequential growth in the third quarter.” Cisco is fairly flat.

Microsoft Lync is not only growing quickly, but growing in large enterprises where Cisco dominates. ZK states “Microsoft has moved into the #2 position when it comes to user preference.” Considering Microsoft has been at this only a few years, and Cisco more than a decade – that’s impressive. I don’t agree with the rivalry, but it is an accurate description.

“For Cisco, Microsoft poses a rather unique threat. Prior to Microsoft, Cisco competed with companies that went to market similar to they way it did but didn’t have nearly the marketing budgets nor the engineering installed based that Cisco has.”

I completely disagree with this. Cisco did not compete with companies in the same way. Cisco offered a comprehensive approach to networking and UC. For example, Cisco Discovery Protocol (CDP), a proprietary solution in Cisco switches, improved location awareness with Cisco UC. Cisco offers the whole enchilada – the servers, gateways, applications, wireless access points and devices, endpoints, firewalls, SBCs, telepresence, and so on. The firm offers tighter integration and improvement management. Conversely, Avaya, Mitel, NEC, ShoreTel, Aastra, ALU, and Siemens Enterprise all offer various components (degrees) of the solution. These firms go-to-market with a best-of-breed proposition. It was multiple best-of-breeds v. a single comprehensive solution – then came Lync.

Here lies the rub. Not only does Microsoft also offer a comprehensive vision (Windows server and desktop, Office, Exchange, SharePoint, and Active Directory), but steps on many of Cisco’s key claims (tightly integrated with Office, Exchange, and Active Directory). Now the market has two comprehensive solutions. This has impacted Cisco more than any other vendor.

Another big change for Cisco is that previously when it did win an account say against Avaya, then Avaya was likely out of the account. When Cisco wins against Lync – there’s a good chance Microsoft is still in the account. For these reasons, Microsoft is an opponent unlike the others.

I would like to take a moment to put in a plug for best of breed – or why I don’t like the Cisco v. Microsoft debate. It’s not because best-of-breed is always better, but because it can be. What I don’t like about the Cisco v Lync debate is that ignores a tremendous amount of strong alternatives. For example, Mitel is way ahead on virtualization and any shop seriously committed to VMware should be piloting Mitel. NEC has impressive capabilities regarding disaster recover with 3C. You can add as many 3C servers into as many locations (automatic failover and balancing) as you want. According to Aberdeen, ShoreTel cleans up on TCO (ShoreTel customers are laughing at the who’s cheaper debate between Cisco and Microsoft).  Avaya offers industry leading contact center solutions with a pretty strong story around SIP and video.

Best of Breed vs. comprehensive is not a new concept – both sides have advantages.

“Cisco UC is more mature, has higher voice quality and, in most cases is cheaper.”

More mature? Maturity doesn’t count for much in an industry that is moving this quickly, but if it did remember that Avaya and NEC each have over a century of maturity under their belts. Cisco got into VoIP in the early 2000s via acquisitions. Microsoft got serious about VoIP in the late 2000s with largely internally developed code. Neither Lync or Cisco are immature.

Higher voice quality? Internal communications generally have wide-band rich communications. External (PSTN) communications have narrow-band communications. Cisco uses industry standard codecs, Microsoft uses proprietary codecs with some unique capabilities. Both use proprietary phones (and few others do). There’s no voice quality argument between these brands for most folks. And cheaper is a black hole because there’s too many assumptions that realistically vary greatly between enterprise organizations.

“Microsoft puts out a product that’s “good enough” and drops it into its huge installed base of Microsoft engineers, and the product takes off.”

Well, there is some truth to that, but it also applies to Cisco. That’s the value of a strong brand which both firms have. Unfortunately, UC is one of those things that you have to commit to without fully knowing all the pitfalls. You do your best, research and pilot what you can, and then jump.

Both vendors have released buggy software. I have nightmares about those early Cisco implementations, or were those early LCS implementations? I can’t remember. Often evaluations are done with a different release than what gets deployed. You aren’t buying a specific release  but a vision and a relationship.  Over the life of the product there will be numerous releases, fixes, and bugs.

“This is the crux of the challenge for Cisco. Appealing to the Microsoft audience with “we’re better” or “we’re cheaper” doesn’t work.”

This can be said about Coke v. Pepsi, Ford v. Chevy, and Democrats v. Republicans. When a customer rejects [insert brand here], clearly it means the customer is closed-minded, ridiculously biased, or foolish. Despite the overwhelming evidence that [fill in different vendor here] is just out to screw customers with inferior dead-end solutions.

Why can’t we be more open and objective? I don’t know – it is one of those quirky things about humanity that might get improved after the singularity. I’d like to think that these narrow minded types are the minority. But as I think Steve Jobs famously said, “there’s one born every minute.”

What many fail to realize is that picking the best UC solution is far more complex than it appears. From a technical perspective there’s numerous trade-offs to consider such as best-of-breed vs. comprehensive solution. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the air – hard phones v. softphones, video, existing technologies and interfaces, centralization, disaster recovery, ramifications, etc.

The technical recommendation is just a component of the selection process. There’s also political issues, relationships, installed equipment, local dealers, turf battles, and even the look and feel of the phones. Then comes the financial issues and comparing bids is never simple. What’s included? What skills are needed? What’s the maintenance costs? Leasing options, perhaps multiple bids are required. A UC solution has enterprise-wide impacts, thus often has lots of selection participants. Ever try getting a kid’s soccer team to agree on pizza toppings?

I find it pretty useless to whine about customers making poor choices. My feeling is you narrow it down to a few good vendors, and you can’t possibly go wrong. One final point: Cisco and Microsoft solutions have far more overlap than differences.

Dave Michels