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Cisco rounds out collaboration portfolio with Squared

An entirely new app built from the ground up, Cisco's Squared is a much-needed attempt at simplifying collaboration.

Cisco’s annual Collaboration Summit kicked off on Monday in LA. I believe this is the second collaboration event under GM Rowan Trollope, who has reshaped Cisco’s business unit. During last year’s event, Trollope was pretty matter-of-fact in acknowledging that collaboration at Cisco needed a face-lift. The various products didn’t work well together and, in his words, Cisco technology was too complicated to deploy and hard to use. While he wasn’t ready to discuss his long-term vision for the industry, he did say that his initial focus was on improving interoperability and making the products easier to use.

Since his arrival in late 2012, Cisco has upgraded many of its hardware platforms, improved product interoperability, and rebuilt the interface for WebEx. Despite all of the work and upgrades, Cisco hasn’t really come out with anything new under Trollope’s tenure. Don’t get me wrong – the new WebEx CMR is great, as are the new hardware endpoints, but I’ve considered those improvements on products that already existed.

At this week’s Collaboration Summit, Cisco took the covers off something it is calling "Project Squared," its next-generation collaboration tool. Squared isn’t an upgrade of an older product or something Cisco patched together; it’s an entirely new application Cisco built from the ground up. Cisco has described the product as "an app where teams work together, where their work lives and how they stay connected to it all."

The concept behind Squared is the single touch point for project teams, which removes much of the "human latency" that plagues project teams today. Think of the way project teams work today – documents are emailed to team members, updates are then made and emailed again, creating version control problems. Documents could be coming from several team members, meaning the worker must be organized enough to keep track of which documents are intended for what projects. Notes are taken on white boards or on paper, and only some of them get disseminated. People take pictures of white boards so they don’t have to write all the information down. What happens to those pictures after a meeting is anyone’s guess. When it comes to the actual meeting, some people are in the room, and some are virtual. Some people dial into an audio bridge, some join by video, and some by web conferencing, so the project leader must now use two to three different collaboration tools. If people from outside the organization are joining, that may be an entirely different set of tools. The problems go on and on.

The answer? Well, the typical solution is for the user to be the integration point of all of this technology. The user needs to keep track of documents, understand which tools can be used in which situation, what limitations exist when they are remote versus in the office, who to ask if they happen to miss a meeting. That’s a big burden to put on the worker.

Project Squared aims to solve all of those problems and create a new way of working. Organizations that use Squared can assign every worker and/or every project their own unique "room." The room is a virtual location where all project documents, notes, messages, recordings of past meetings and other content relevant to that project is stored. Now, if you’re looking for the latest version of that go-to-market document, go to that room and get it. What about the notes from the meeting that was missed? Go to the room and get it. What if you want to discuss some proposed changes to strategy? Send out an invitation and everyone meeting in the room.

To better understand Squared, consider a physical room analogy. Imagine if you worked for a company where every worker had his or her own private conference room. If that person managed two projects, they may have two private rooms. Now, that can’t scale, particularly in this era of mobile workers, so an ideal solution is something like Squared.

There’s more to Squared than the rooms, though. The application is also a complete set of collaboration tools, including messaging, group video, web, and audio conferencing. One of the unique things about Squared is that it has robust asynchronous messaging capabilities. While almost all UC tools have focused on enabling real-time communications, which is obviously very important, Squared gives workers the capability to leave messages that can be viewed the next time someone enters the room. So now an engineer could work on a document in the evening and leave a note telling the project leader what tasks were completed. While Cisco packed Squared with many features, the product is designed to integrate into other common collaboration tools, such as calendaring and email.

Cisco built Squared with mobility and the user in mind. The interface is very slick and may be the easiest-to-use collaboration product Cisco has ever made. Squared is also optimized for mobile devices, and the UC industry sorely lacks quality mobile tools. Unify launched its Circuit product last month, which is similar in vision to Squared. I certainly expect to see more vendors release products that can be looked at as mobile-first, as I believe mobility is the next big battleground for the collaboration industry.

A product like Squared is long overdue from Cisco, and puts into practice many of the issues with collaboration that Rowan Trollope has talked about in his two years as GM of Collaboration at Cisco. Be there or be squared!

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