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Google’s next target: Unified communications

Unified communications has been a technology specialty of networking vendors for years, but Google Inc.'s recent forays into voice communications and collaboration could drastically upset the competitive landscape.

It's not as if Google Voice and Google Wave, which are both launching later this year, will kill related efforts by companies like Cisco Systems Inc., Microsoft Corp. and others that are heavily involved in unified communications, but Google seems to have the competition scrambling already.

Witness today's comment by Doug Dennerline, Cisco's senior vice president of collaboration software: “Google Wave validates what we've been doing for two years [with the Webex Connect collaboration offering],” Dennerline said during a webconference with reporters and analysts. “We are going to invent and reinvent. You'll see cool things from us.”

Anybody who has followed the computer industry for long knows that when a vendor says another company has “validated” them, it really means, “Yes, they are clearly in our living room, and we are making sure they don't move in permanently.” Dennerline was careful to imply that Cisco is up to the Google challenge and would “invent and reinvent” to stay competitive.

While Google Voice and Wave seem more focused on consumers, with tools for instant messaging, e-mail and social networking, Dennerline was quick to point out that “social networking is important to enterprises, too.”

Zeus Kerravala, a Yankee Group Research Inc. analyst who was on the call with Dennerline, said Google Voice and Wave so far are not a threat to Cisco, Microsoft and voice-switching vendors like Avaya Inc. or Siemens. However, he added, “long term, Google will have a significant role” in the voice and unified communications markets.

The main reason is Google's size. “Google has the mind share and capital resources that it can be as big a threat as it desires to be,” Kerravala said.

Google could pose a more serious threat to Cisco than it does to other companies, since Cisco has a dual mission of keeping its traditional customer base of enterprise IT operations and service providers happy and well-supplied with networking gear, while also seeking to serve consumers, especially with video technology.

Cisco in March announced plans to buy Pure Digital Technologies Inc. in order to acquire its Flip handheld camera technology. Cisco has also said that it is developing a consumer version of its telepresence system.

“We think video is going to be very key in driving the next level of collaboration … with Internet video, desktop video and consumer telepresence,” said Padmasree Warrior, Cisco's chief technology officer, who also participated in today's conference call.

So while Cisco clearly sees its audience as both business users and consumers, a more pertinent question is whether Google intends to go beyond the consumer market with its Voice and Wave products, taking both services into business settings.

The answer to that question, in a sense, is: It doesn't matter. The reason is that Google clearly sees multiple markets, all blended together, where consumers are also workers. Consider this: If Google's Voice service — which is designed to link all of your phones to one number and features add-ons such as the ability to turn voice mail messages into text — can be offered to millions of users for free, isn't it likely that people will use it at work? Small businesses could use it and not care if Google is taking some of the information gleaned from users and selling it to advertisers.

Large businesses might not want their employees to use Google Voice or Google Wave tools on the job, but who would stop anyone from doing so, and how? It's the same concern that was raised two years ago with the first-generaton iPhone, which was so attractive to some people that they used iPhones at work even though their IT shops issued security warnings about the device.

Today, Cisco's Warrior said that the company will offer virtual voice service, probably through its service provider customers. That could be interpreted as Cisco's most direct response to Google Voice, even if Cisco officials won't admit it directly. That's because nearly every major wireless or wired service provider sells to both large companies and consumers, and no service provider is going to want a cloud-based service like Google Voice to come along for free and take away paying customers.

So, Cisco's virtual voice in the cloud could give a service provider the ability to tell its own customers, “See, we have our own version of Google Voice, but you can offer it to your customers, complete with Cisco security so there are no worries about their loss of privacy.”

Kerravala said he has no doubt that virtual voice from Cisco will compete with Google Voice. “Oh, yeah, its gotta be competitive,” he said. “Google Voice is really just cloud-based voice, so that's very competitive with Cisco's telco clients.”

Those Cisco clients include many of the major voice and data carriers. The market battle between Google and many companies in unified communications may be quiet so far, but it is still very much a battle.

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