How Cisco Systems Has Revved Up its Webex Innovation Engine

eWEEK COLLABORATION PERSPECTIVE: Why COVID-19 has acted as an accelerant for Webex innovation.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has raised the value of meeting tools from being a “nice-to-have” to “must-have” technology. What was once something used by a handful of mobile professionals is now something used by almost everyone, including students, doctors, lawyers, therapists and general office workers that typically met face to face. Now that the majority of people are working from home, meeting tools are the way we meet, socialize, hire, train and educate. 

This trend isn’t likely to abate anytime soon, either. The 2020 ZK Research Work From Anywhere Study found that prior to the pandemic, 22% of people worked remotely. Post pandemic businesses are planning for that number to increase to 40%, an almost 2x increase in the number of people working outside the corporate walls. 

Webex is still the market share leader 

Despite the ascendance of Zoom, Cisco’s Webex product has been and continues to be the market-share leader in web conferencing. The last numbers I saw from Synergy Research had Cisco with 41% share, a little over 2x its nearest competitor. 

Despite the market share lead, there has been some chatter in the industry about Webex falling behind in features. I’ve been a Cisco watcher for over 20 years, and I think the criticism is fair, although Cisco had spent a significant amount of R&D in the area of security and reliability, rather than on bells and whistles. Now that the foundation is strong and secure, it has turned up the innovation engine with regard to user-facing features; here are some of the more notable ones. 

Innovation in line with work-from-home trends 

Cisco’s specific innovation since the pandemic started has been in line with its vision of the hybrid workplace. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company has been aggressively rolling out new Webex features to enable remote workers to work as if they were in the office. Everything centers on the idea of having one tool that meets all collaboration needs. 

Remote workers are typically frustrated with using different communications platforms that don’t interoperate with each other. In addressing this challenge, Cisco streamlined Webex to serve as a single platform for both hardware and software. Users can call, message and host virtual meetings via the unified Webex app from intelligent devices, such as headsets and workstations with whiteboarding capabilities.

Whiteboarding brings content into video meetings 

Whiteboarding is a widely used feature for teams that collaborate on projects and share ideas. The Webex Board combines a wireless presentation screen, a digital whiteboard and an audio- and video-conferencing system in one. Users can virtually annotate on a screen and save their ideas in Webex or email them to team members. Cisco launched an update in July that allows Webex users to share and edit whiteboards during meetings. With the live ideation feature, everyone in the meeting can work on whiteboarding together in real-time. 

Breakout rooms a key feature for teams 

Cisco also introduced a breakout rooms feature to help teams collaborate in small groups. Hosts and co-hosts can create sessions in Webex by assigning participants to separate audio and video conferences. If a user connects to audio in a meeting, it automatically switches over when joining a breakout session. When a breakout session ends, the audio switches back to the main meeting. The video stays on during a breakout session and remains on when a user returns to the main meeting. This has been widely adopted by schools that start as larger groups and then break out to smaller, focused groups. 

Transcription improves the post meeting experience 

With employees dispersed across home offices, it can be difficult for meeting participants to take notes. The latest version of Webex has a real-time meeting transcription feature that uses advanced voice technology to transcribe speech to text. Webex Assistant for Meetings not only provides transcriptions but also voice commands, closed captioning and note-taking. Some schools have implemented Webex Assistant to help students with disabilities who are learning remotely. Hearing-impaired students, for example, can follow lessons using closed captions as instructors teach via Webex.

BabbleLabs brings noise removal to ease work from home challenges 

The new features are designed to tackle various issues that come with working remotely, including background noise and visual distractions. Over the years, Cisco has tweaked algorithms responsible for noise reduction in Webex. The company has recently stepped up its noise-canceling game with the acquisition of BabbleLabs, a provider of noise removal and speech enhancement. The technology, integrated into Webex Meetings, uses artificial intelligence (AI) to boost a speaker’s voice while filtering out unwanted noises, such as a dog barking or a doorbell ringing. 

Background blur and virtual backgrounds enable a custom look 

There is another recently launched feature that allows meeting participants to maintain their privacy by hiding their surroundings. Background blur keeps the speaker in focus and everything else around them blurred. Alternatively, meeting participants can choose a different virtual background altogether. 

Besides rolling out features that make remote workers more productive, Cisco has been focusing on overcoming quality of service (QoS) issues from home networks. An August update in Webex included video packet loss compensation. If network conditions suddenly worsen, a user’s high-resolution video will continue at 50 percent packet loss. Home networks are more strained than ever with kids’ distance-learning sessions and other members of the family working remotely. This new feature minimizes meeting disruptions, even if a user has a bad connection.

Workplace safety and IT pro enhancements also a focus for Webex 

In addition to the above, there are a number of other new features, including optimized mobile experiences, new calling features and new capabilities to make the workplace safer. This includes being able to control a desk phone from a laptop and touch free pairing of a desk phone to headset. This minimizes the amount of touch points a worker may need to have in an average day. 

Lastly, Cisco has brought in a number of new capabilities to make IT’s job easier. Much of the media focus on work from home has been on the impact to the worker, but IT pros also have been affected. The Webex Control Hub is a single dashboard where IT can set security policies, monitor usage and other tasks to ensure users can work, the performance stays high and the company is protected. 

Cisco customers should expect to see Webex innovation continue at an unprecedented rate. I recently spoke with collaboration GM Javed Khan, and he told me the goal of Webex is to make the virtual meeting 10x better than in-person meetings. This seems like an impossible task, but the new features delivered to date are certainly in line with that vision. 

A last thought: One inherent advantage is that all virtual meetings must start exactly on time, so that’s one good feature that comes with the territory!

Zeus Kerravala is an eWEEK regular contributor and the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research. He spent 10 years at Yankee Group and prior to that held a number of corporate IT positions.