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Microsoft Outlook and the inside collaboration app conundrum

Collaboration applications are the hot thing right now in unified communications.

The big collaboration apps seemingly do it all. They offer an easy-to-use, consistent and persistent workspace that features video conferencing, instant messaging, file sharing, screen sharing and mobility, among other things. The idea is for co-workers to live in these spaces to get work done together.

But what’s missing? Email. Namely, the ability to collaborate outside your company is lacking.

We recently chatted with Irwin Lazar, vice president and service director at Nemertes Research, to try to make sense of this collaboration craze. Among his many good points, one in particular stood out: Microsoft Outlook, the simple communications tool that the majority of workers use religiously every day, is a key cog in this collaboration clamor.

“For Cisco, they have to find some way of competing on a broader scale with Microsoft than just in the voice and video market,” Lazar said. “People spend a lot of time in Outlook. And Cisco, for years now, is saying, ‘How do we get people out of Outlook and into something else?’ ”

If users live in Outlook, that means they have Microsoft licenses, which also gives them access to other capabilities like voice, desktop video and Web conferencing. So the process becomes a natural progression into the Microsoft suite, Lazar said, which steers users away from Cisco collaboration tools.

Cisco products have plug-ins for Outlook. And Cisco Jabber, one of the company’s collaboration tools, recently added text messaging outside the company network. But as a universal collaboration tool, especially outside your organization, email is still persevering.

Smaller apps’ big influence
In response to newer companies flooding the collaboration market with smaller apps, Cisco recently unveiled Spark, while Microsoft retooled Lync as Skype for Business and introduced Groups, another collaboration tool that includes an inbox, calendaring, file sharing and quick messaging.

Lazar does think smaller collaboration apps, like Slack and Glip, can challenge the larger incumbent vendors.

Slack RGB

“I think they are competitive,” he said, “and that’s why Cisco spent a lot of time, effort and money to build Spark because they’re trying to find some way to finally replace Outlook as the thing that people spend most of their day living in.” (Again, it comes back to Outlook.) “I do think the [new] tools have a lot of potential to severely disrupt the market.”

Fast forward two years from now and Cisco Spark will probably replace Cisco Jabber, Lazar added.

Alan Lepofsky, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research, agreed that “a new lightweight breed of real-time communications” is challenging big vendors. At the same time, he said, persistent chat is making a huge comeback — from its late ’90s popularity — with tools like Slack, Glip, HipChat, Convo, Flowdock and others.

Lepofsky said with all the collaboration offerings, both big and small, some of the questions customers need to ask is: Do you want presence, chat and video conferencing as part of an integrated vendor suite, or do you want to go with a smaller vendor and hope it integrates with the rest of your enterprise software?

The bottom line: The market is indeed muddled as users wade through many options. But, like with most technology, find what suits you.