Two years ago, Zeus Kerravala, a Yankee Group analyst, confidently recommended Cisco over Microsoft for most enterprise unified communications deployments. Today, the tables have turned somewhat, but the two competitors, and a host of bit players, continue to wage war over where unified communications is going, and who will take enterprises there.
"It's pretty safe to go with Microsoft now," Kerravala said. "The thought process was that VoIP is the foundation for unified communications, which meant Cisco was pretty safe. I think the conversation has changed."
Strangely enough, he said, the strategies of the companies have remained fairly consistent. Microsoft has long approached unified communications from an email and software-centric world, while Cisco has brought its PBX legacy to bear with a strong voice message.
But enterprises' definitions of unified communications and their expectations for the technology have changed. Two years ago voice was considered the cornerstone of any UC deployment, but that thinking -- at least in some circles -- has changed, Kerravala said.
"Presence is now the centerpiece of UC," he said. This pushes the advantage toward Microsoft and its rich ecosystem of software partners.
Presence has become increasingly important as the value of UC has shifted from simply unifying communications options to integrating those communications into business processes while boosting productivity, which businesses cite as the No. 1 reason to adopt the technology.
To fill this need, presence capabilities are being embedded into an increasingly broad range of applications. Presence helps users of all center applications to route support tickets quickly to available expert assistance. Microsoft has begun integrating presence into its Office productivity software.
It has not hurt that even as presence has increased in importance, Microsoft has made great strides in terms of improving its voice capabilities and uptime.
"People who argue against the Microsoft communications vision say: 'Do you want to reduce your phone system to the reliability of your email system?' " said Michael D. Osterman, president of Black Diamond, Wash.-based Osterman Research. "But overall, their [reliability] is pretty good, so I'm not sure if that's a valid argument."
Cisco has not been resting on its IP PBX laurels, however. The company has been busy integrating its online collaboration suite WebEx Connect with everything from TelePresence to third-party widgets. The two competitors' portfolios look more alike as they are filled out.
Their feature sets may be growing similar -- rich IM, video conferencing, integrated voice -- but the old differences between the two vendors still matter, particularly when enterprises want to use both platforms.
Both companies often pay lip service to interoperability, Kerravala said, but users are frustrated that the two competitors do not integrate more seamlessly.
"I think there still is a chasm between what they can do together," he said. "When you talk to customers, the interoperability can be done, but it's kind of hard."
The acceptance and implementation of SIP as a unified communications standard will help, as well as letting another part of the equation come into play: the ecosystem outside the Cisco-Microsoft dichotomy.
"We'll see multiple vendors in the space for a very long time," Osterman said, pointing to Avaya, Nortel and IBM, all of which have pushed aspects of unified communications despite needing partnerships to deliver a comprehensive communications suite. "Standalone islands are just not going to make it."
Instead, Kerravala said, it is important to think about unified communications strategically and choose among Cisco, Microsoft or another vendor based on the platform they can help create rather than any individual component.
"When companies think about making the UC decisions, they really need to think about it as a business transformation maker," he said. The question is not who has the best VoIP solution, but how can mobile UC transform field sales processes? How will presence make call centers more efficient?
"I think it's tougher," Kerravala said. "But I think it's more important."