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Cisco partners ponder value of Project Squared collaboration service

Cisco released its Project Squared collaboration service as a work in progress, promising details on integration with other products as the cloud-based service evolves.

Cisco partners trying to understand how Project Squared could help their customers remained optimistic that the vendor's unfinished, cloud-based collaboration service would eventually evolve into a competitive service for conducting online meetings.

Project Squared, introduced to Cisco resellers Monday at the Cisco Collaboration Summit in Los Angeles, is a work in progress. The product is available at no charge to companies willing to test the software and provide feedback to Cisco.

The online collaboration service is mostly standalone, and Cisco has not said publicly how Project Squared will fit into the company's current portfolio of collaboration and unified communication products. Indeed, the company has not said how it plans to commercialize Project Squared, which will certainly have a new name when it goes to market.

What Cisco partners say about Project Squared

Cisco partners were attracted to the software's simplicity and ease in creating virtual meeting rooms where marketers, sales staff and business managers could discuss projects and share content.

We certainly do internally have an idea where we want to go, but we’re not publishing that at this time.
Rowan Trollopesenior vice president, Cisco Collaboration Technology Group

"We'll definitely try it and see how it works," Matthew Loraditch, network engineer at Helion Automotive Technologies, said at the collaboration summit. Helion, which is based in Sparks, Md., provides technology to car dealerships, which Loraditch said were unlikely to use Squared.

"I could see it in many other verticals," he said.

Without details on how Squared would work with other Cisco products, some resellers were unable to assess its full potential.

"I like what it could be, but I haven't gotten my head around what the proposition would be for the customer," said Steve Browell, chief technology officer at Intrinsic, a Britain-based managed services provider. Intrinsic helps companies integrate on-premises systems with cloud-based services.

Customers and channel partners will get a better understanding of Project Squared as it evolves, Cisco executives said. The company plans to upgrade the software every couple of weeks with features based on user feedback.

Squared will integrate  with WebEx Meetings, Cisco's online collaboration software for accessing a digital whiteboard, screen sharing, and video and audio conferencing. In addition, Project Squared will eventually have some integration with Microsoft Exchange and Jabber, Cisco's software for Web conferencing, instant messaging and voice and video communications.

Some of those upcoming features were demonstrated during the Summit’s opening keynote delivered by Rowan Trollope, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco's Collaboration Technology Group. Trollope later declined to discuss his plans for integrating or replacing other Cisco collaboration products with Project Squared.

Project Squared is a piece of the Cisco Collaboration Cloud, and the roadmap for the latter "is going to be forthcoming," Trollope told reporters after the keynote.

"We certainly do internally have an idea where we want to go, but we're not publishing that at this time," Trollope said. "We have absolutely plans laid out in terms of where we want to go and how everything comes together."

Avoid customer confusion on overlapping product features

To avoid confusion among customers, analysts say Cisco will have to either eliminate or explain the need for overlapping features in WebEx, Jabber and Project Squared. In addition, the company will have to explain the impact Squared will have on Cisco's partnership with collaboration-as-a-service company Jive and the technology Cisco provides for integrating IBM Connections with Jabber. IBM Connections is the company's social networking software for business.

"Tying it all well together and simplifying its offerings both from a capabilities and positioning point of view will be key here for Cisco," said Roopam Jain, Frost & Sullivan analyst, in an email after being briefed on Project Squared before the announcement.

Clarity is important, because Cisco is tossing Squared into a crowded market where there are options from large competitors like Microsoft and Google. Unify, another competitor, recently released its cloud-based collaboration product called Circuit.

"Cisco is not reinventing communications or offering a new category of solution by any means," Jain said.

All of these vendors, including Cisco, are chasing a market in which companies are looking for online team collaboration in a single virtual workspace where relevant information is stored, Jain said. In addition, companies want that same workspace to appear on mobile devices, Windows PCs and Apple computers.

Given Cisco's large number of enterprise customers, the company has an immediate pool of potential buyers for Squared.

Making the software available at no charge initially is designed to give companies time to kick the tires before Cisco announces how it plans to sell the product.

"We absolutely have a commercial plan that we will be flushing out and rolling out over time," Trollope said.

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Do you plan to try Project Squared in your unified communications environment even if it's not finished?
As a general rule for my enterprise, any OS or application that is in beta or development phase does not get used until it is in the second generation. Project Squared is a very capable unified communications tool but it is still in development.