Unified communications has been a technology specialty of networking vendors for years, but Google's recent forays into Google Voice and Google Wave, launching later this year, could drastically upset the competitive landscape.
It's not as if Google Voice and Google Wave will kill related efforts of companies like Cisco, Microsoft and others heavily involved in unified communications, but Google seems to have the competition scrambling already.
Witness the comment by Cisco's Doug Dennerline, senior vice president of collaboration software, in a web conference with reporters and analysts. "Google Wave validates what we've been doing for two years [with Webex Connect]," Dennerline said. "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 Wave and Voice seem more focused on consumer users, with tools for instant messaging, email and social networks, Dennerline was quick to point out that "social networking is important to enterprises, too."
Zeus Kerravala, a Yankee Group analyst, said Google Voice and Wave so far are not a threat to Cisco, Microsoft and voice-switching vendors like Avaya or Siemens. However, he added, "long term, Google will have a significant role" in voice and unified communications markets.
The main reason is Google's size. "Google has the mindshare and capital resources that it can be as big a threat as it desires to be," Kerravala said.
The Google threat to Cisco could be especially acute compared with Google's threat to other companies, since Cisco has a dual mission of keeping its traditional enterprise customers and service providers happy and well-supplied with networking gear, while also seeking to service consumers, especially with video technology.
Cisco in March announced plans to buy Pure Digital Technologies for its Flip handheld camera technology and has said it is developing a consumer telepresence product.
"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 CTO.
So while Cisco clearly recognises its audience as both business customers and consumers, a more pertinent question is whether Google intends to go beyond its consumer business 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 a Google Voice service, to link all your phones to one number with a variety of add-ons such as turning voice mail into text, can be offered to millions of users for free, isn't it likely to also be used by workers? Small businesses could use it and not care if Google is using some of the information gleaned from users to sell to advertisers.
Large businesses might never want a Google Voice or Wave feature used by their workers, 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 users that they ignored security warnings from their IT shops.
Today, Cisco's Warrior said that it will make virtual voice service available, too, 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 Google cloud computing 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 and no worries about their loss of privacy."
Kerravala 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 a quiet one so far, but it is still very much a battle.