Cisco’s New Project Squared Collaboration Tool Offers Modern Alternative To Aging WebEx

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Cisco announced a new communications and collaboration platform today, they have dubbed Project Squared, which has been built from the ground up as a cloud-mobile tool designed to work smoothly across platforms regardless of the device. The tool lets you view audio and video, have multi-party meetings and share content in a single view.

And it offers a modern update for the older WebEx tool. Cisco bought WebEx for $3.2B in 2007, but it hasn’t aged well, and today with the release of Project Squared, the company is offering a sleek alternative.

WebEx was created for another time when most of your work was done on the desktop, mobile meant a BlackBerry and the iPad wasn’t even a glint in Steve Jobs’ eye. In other words, it was created as a Web 2.0 tool. For those of you who forget Web 2.0, that was a term coined to describe the second generation of web tools that moved the web beyond web site designers. It was a set of tools and technologies that put communications and content creation into the hands of the masses. It was a huge breakthrough at the time, but it was a long time ago and the world has changed since WebEx was first conceived.

Anyone who has used the program recently knows it was kind of clunky and not terribly user friendly. Cisco clearly recognized this too and that’s why they hired Jonathan Rosenberg as CTO for collaboration. Rosenberg’s resume includes includes chief technology strategist at Skype. Cisco gave him a mission to completely reinvent WebEx. The result is Project Squared, and my first impression is that it’s a huge leap forward.

Cisco Project Squared Web and iOS interface.

Rosenberg certainly recognized that the world had changed dramatically since 2007, as had the way people work and he needed to create a tool from the ground up in a mobile and cloud context. “Mobile and cloud are transforming the way people collaborate. It’s that simple,” he told me. He added that with the rise of the mobile worker, they needed a tool that worked across devices using the cloud as the fiber to hold it all together.

ProjectSquaredMobileProjectSquaredCalendarIntegrationProjectSquaredGroupCalling

The result is an entirely new product that works across platforms, and gives workers access to communications and sharing tools wherever they are with instant syncing across these devices.

What’s more, Cisco is treating this like a modern app by offering it for free download for iOS, Android, Windows and Mac starting today. The company will make money by charging IT for more advanced features and management capabilities, but the free tool gives you access to all the functionality including instant messaging, video conferencing, document sharing, high resolution image and video sharing and so forth. “We don’t want a paywall getting in the way of collaborating,” he said explaining why the company is offering this tool for free.

Cisco Project Squared web interface.

The content sharing panel, which is visible in the web interface provides access to the content through the Box View and Box Content APIs. And for anyone who might be concerned about sharing business content in the cloud across devices, Rosenberg explained everything is encrypted in the client as it’s shared and unencrypted upon delivery on the client.

It’s worth noting that for now, you are limited to the Firefox browser for voice calling, but Rosenberg also made clear that today’s announcement is just a first step, not an end point for the product. He suggested they have much bigger ambitions for this platform beyond today’s release.

For now, it uses a room metaphor as in ‘get a room, you two.’ This gives you the ability to create work spaces for specific purposes whether it’s a private talk or a place for multiple team members to collaborate around a project. This metaphor carries over nicely whether you’re working in the browser, a smartphone app or a tablet app. Obviously the larger the screen, the more you can see, but they’ve designed the smartphone app in way you can see enough of the communications parts to carry on conversations with your roommates wherever you happen to be.

From a design standpoint, this is an attractive interface. In demos it worked extremely smoothly whether video conferencing or sharing content. I did a video conference interview with Rosenberg and it worked well without forcing me to download any software in the process. Cisco shared a link to the room and that was it.

A Cisco spokesperson told me this wasn’t a replacement for WebEx, and it even integrated into WebEx. In fact, if you have more than 8 people on a call, you need to switch to WebEx which can accommodate additional people.

Companies have long recognized the power of good collaboration tools to knock down communications barriers, but for some reason this category of tools has floundered to a large extent. And companies seemingly always return to the defacto way of collaborating –email. While this tool is a big leap forward, it remains unclear if Cisco can lead the way in redefining this space or if it will go the way of other collaboration and communications platforms and struggle on the edges of the enterprise, regardless of the potential.

Other images courtesy of Cisco.

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