IBM and Cisco team up on enterprise collaboration to stave off rivals like Slack and Microsoft

Earlier this month, IBM and Cisco announced they would work together to integrate IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence technology into edge routers from Cisco, and today the two IT giants are deepening their partnership again, as they aim for a bigger piece of the enterprise collaboration market being chased by the likes of fast-growing, popular upstarts like Slack, large incumbents like Microsoft and more.

IBM and Cisco said they will now work together in a wide-ranging partnership, in which they will build apps that integrate Watson and other IBM services with Cisco apps, such as collaboration platform Spark (aka Cisco’s competitor to Slack and Yammer) and conferencing service WebEx (aka Cisco’s rival to, Skype, and others).

The first products will integrate Spark and WebEx with IBM’s Verse (a business email client) and Connections (IBM’s own attempt at building a Yammer- or Slack-style social network for businesses), and these will be rolled out later this year, according to Ed Brill, a VP at IBM that oversees collaboration solutions. He added that the first AI-related services will not come until 2017, when “we expect to introduce cognitive workflow capabilities from IBM Watson and an API developer ecosystem.”

As with the previous deal between Cisco and IBM, the two companies are not sharing any details about how much either is investing in the new services, except to say that they are both chipping in. “We are not disclosing the terms of the agreement but can say that both companies are committed to this and putting resources behind these offerings to ensure they are the best available for clients,” said Brill.

He added that this not a joint venture as such, and both companies plan to sell the resulting products.

For its part, Cisco has been inking several partnerships of this kind as one way of adding more capabilities to its hardware and software, without building them on its own (or buying them, such as in the deal earlier this week to buy security startup CloudLock for $293 million). For example, a deal with Ericsson announced in November 2015 to integrate and develop new products together will add some $1 billion in sales to each company’s balance sheets, according to their projections.

The bigger picture in this latest IBM and Cisco deal is that both companies are feeling the heat of competition from a wide range of rivals, some big and some actually quite small.

IBM Cisco LogosThey include standalone services from popular startups like Slack, Quip, Trello and Asana; as well as those offered by large companies like Microsoft and Citrix, which not only build their own solutions but have been aggressive acquirers of those startups that have built popular enterprise productivity tools.

It’s a mark of how far we’ve come in the tech world that some of these products from much smaller outfits can give huge IT businesses a run for their money.

Practically, the new partnership will at the very least mean more seamless functionality for those who are currently users of these products. For those already on WebEx, for example, IBM says that you will very soon get options to subscribe to IBM services like Verse and Connections Cloud to share files from these while in a WebEx conference.

Given that WebEx can already be draining on your system, being able to pull things in without leaving the program or toggling with other software will be welcome news. And, I should point out, this is very much in keeping with the kind of integrated app experience that people are now coming to expect as standard, thanks to services like Slack.

Ironically, it’s something that Jens Meggers, Cisco’s SVP/GM for its Cloud Collaboration Technology Group, pointed out himself as one of the shortcomings of the company’s products. “Why can’t everything else be as simple to use? Why can’t these same tools talk to my email client or other productivity tools? And why, if I’m repeating the same task, do I have to keep doing it? Why can’t my machine figure out that repetitive, mundane task and just take care of it for me? With the advent of artificial intelligence, there must be a way to make collaboration even better,” he writes in a blog post about the new partnership. “I asked these questions over and over, and my team decided to do something about it.”

IBM’s Brill also provided another example of how a new IBM+Cisco product might look in the future: “A financial advisor could meet with a high-value investor over Cisco WebEx video utilizing a Watson service that offers real-time advice and handling tasks, while documents shared during the WebEx would be securely stored and available in IBM Connections,” he said. “The client can then use an electronic signature company (like IBM partner Docusign) to execute the agreement and securely store them inIBM Connections for the advisor.”

All in all, it sounds interesting, if a little like IBM and Cisco are arriving to the party late. On the side of businesses, part of their interest in these various other services has been because they are often easier to use and more functional than software from the larger incumbents, and so it will be interesting to see whether a collaboration between two of them will bring about more appealing products, and more importantly a swing in uptake.