Network Computing is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Cisco Inbox Puts Outlook In Its Crosshairs

Cisco is sharing its plans to challenge Outlook and Exchange as the company ratchets up its online e-mail service, Cisco WebEx Mail. Today, organizations are adopting SaaS-based e-mail services rather than run Exchange in-house to cut costs and reduce operational burdens. Most of these mail services, including Cisco, support Outlook as the primary mail client for end users. However, Cisco will adopt the Google Apps approach, where customers use a browser-based client instead. Cisco hopes its customers will embrace the WebEx Mail browser client instead of Outlook. To encourage the swap, Cisco is rolling out a new set of features, called Cisco Inbox, for its browser client.

Cisco Inbox, expected to be available at the end of this year, aims to make e-mail easier to organize and more relevant for collaboration. Despite enterprise adoption of corporate and public collaboration tools, e-mail continues to exert a strong gravitational pull in the workplace. Rather than fight e-mail's gravity, or keep it siloed from other collaboration tools, the goal of Cisco Inbox is to make e-mail the control center of a collaboration environment.

For example, Cisco Inbox has a feature called "Topics" that lets users arrange e-mail by topically, such as by team, event, project, or any other criteria. Instead of residing in a folder, live topics are in a bar on the main screen just like individual e-mail messages. Inbox goes a step further by letting users add a variety of content to a topic. Besides e-mail messages, a topic bar can contain IM chats, video files and voicemail. Topics can also be made into virtual public spaces, meaning that a user can invite other employees to access messages and files stored in a particular topic.

Cisco also plans to integrate Inbox with collaboration sites such as LinkedIn, so that users who are logged into their mail client and LinkedIn can post messages to the LinkedIn site by sending e-mail rather than having to surf to the LinkedIn site itself. Cisco says Inbox will initially support Skype and the company's own IM client. It plans to add support for Jabber over time.

Cisco Inbox fits into Cisco's broader strategy to own a customer's entire messaging infrastructure. Other pieces of the puzzle include Cisco WebEx Connect, a cloud-based service that provides IM, presence and online meetings, and its Unified Communications products for VoIP and video. Cisco has a strong advantage in VoIP and video, but if it wants to own the full messaging stack, it will have to dethrone Exchange and Outlook. Microsoft has its own unified communications strategy. Office Communications Server offers voice, IM, presence and conferencing, and includes tight integration with Outlook.

Rather than fight Microsoft on premises, Cisco is betting it can compete on the SaaS front. Is it a good bet? Right now, the number of overall SaaS e-mail users is fairly small: of the nearly one billion business e-mail boxes deployed worldwide, only 20 million of those were SaaS-based in 2009, according to IDC. That's a tiny fraction, but there are signs of growth. IDC also notes that SaaS-based mailboxes doubled between 2007 and 2009, so Cisco's bet may pay off, particularly for small and mid-size companies that want to shed the burden of operating a premises mail infrastructure, and whose compliance and security concerns may not be as pressing as larger organizations.

However, Cisco has its work cut out. Outlook is entrenched in corporate environments, even for organizations that move e-mail off premises. A large number of other SaaS e-mail players, including AppRiver, Apptix, Navisite, Rackspace offer SaaS-based e-mail services that support Outlook--not to mention Microsoft, which is embracing the cloud while also hoping to tighten its grip on premises applications.

And Cisco will have to fight Google for customers who are willing to abandon Outlook in favor of the browser. Google is storming the pure-play SaaS e-mail market with strong customer wins such as the city of Los Angeles. Cisco is also in the unusual position of being the upstart rather than the 900lb gorilla in the SaaS e-mail market. The company launched WebEx Mail in November 2009, but declined to state how many inboxes it currently provides to customers. That said, when Cisco Inbox becomes available, the company will have all the pieces in place to offer a compelling unified communications package that blends premises products and online services.