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The Cisco Desktop

I don't know if Cisco is going to make it as a consumer electronics company, but it's making some really important moves to reposition itself in the enterprise. And it's all about the desktop.Cisco made a small but intriguing investment last week, contributing to a $7 million financing round for a company called Xobni, which makes a Microsoft Outlook plug-in (see No Jitter posts here and here).

But Xobni isn't just any Outlook plug-in; it's an Outlook plug-in that 20% of Microsoft's own employees reportedly use, and one that was talked up by Bill Gates, who used to be a Microsoft employee.

And why this matters is, it shows that Cisco isn't ceding an inch to Microsoft in the Unified Communications market.

The conventional wisdom has been that Microsoft has the inside track of the Unified Communications race because it "owns" the user desktop in most enterprises. And the argument is that it "owns" that desktop because its e-mail client and office applications dominate those desktops. But what if those two applications -- e-mail and office apps -- aren't actually the key to winning the desktop in the future?

That's what Cisco is betting with Xobni and its earlier purchase of PostPath, together with its emphasis on social networking. Xobni and PostPath seek not to replace the Exchange-Outlook combo, but to mitigate their importance. It would be foolhardy for Cisco to, with great fanfare, announce its own e-mail client and go head to head against Outlook. What's more, it might be unnecessary.

Cisco is assuming, almost assuredly correctly, that Outlook is going to be the bedrock of most enterprise users' e-mail systems for the foreseeable future. (Strunk and White, the arbiters of English grammar, said you should never write "foreseeable future," because we can't foresee the future. In case you couldn't tell, they died before the Internet happened and everyone became a pundit.) So Cisco's task is to drain as much of the value out of Outlook, per se, as it can.

PostPath is an e-mail server that's natively compatible with Outlook -- it looks just like an Exchange server to an Outlook client. So users could keep their Outlook clients -- they'd just, in Cisco's ideal world, use it to talk to a PostPath server, and use technology like Xobni's to add connectivity from Outlook into public social networking and communications sites like Facebook and Skype or Yahoo, while also adding the mailbox-organizing tools that Microsoft's internal users reportedly prize about Xobni.

It makes for a pretty formidable challenge: With WebEx as the network-based platform, supplemented by these various new communications capabilities like PostPath and Jabber IM, Cisco has a technology play. And the market has shown signs of being receptive to a Cisco desktop, as I noted in this post from early last year.

At the same time that it's making this move upon the desktop computer's chief communications app, Cisco also is making a lot of noise about social networking, which could represent the office application of the future. Cisco isn't as far along with its own products in this area, but clearly hopes to see the market for social networking sweep users off the Microsoft platform and into the wild seas of wikis, blogs, and other network-based ways of creating and archiving content. Of course, here they face a Microsoft contender -- SharePoint -- that in many ways is as powerful as Exchange. So it won't be easy.

I started this week's newsletter by talking about Cisco trying to become a consumer electronics company. In reality, it much has to make a run at that market, because it's running out of new markets in the enterprise and service provider space. And if Cisco is going to take a shot at consumer electronics, there really isn't an enterprise market you can count them out of.Cisco isn't ceding an inch to Microsoft in the Unified Communications market.