The head of Cisco's Webex explains how it's using AI to innovate and compete with newer rivals like Zoom and Microsoft Teams

  • Cisco’s Webex has seen usage spike, but it has less buzz than newer rivals Zoom and Microsoft Teams.
  • Cisco exec Jeetu Patel is trying to change that perception by investing in innovation and AI. 
  • Webex is focusing on using AI to make online meetings more inclusive and useful than offline.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Video conferencing tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams have gotten a lot of attention for seeing huge spikes in usage during the pandemic. Before those apps even existed, however, there was Cisco’s Webex — and it, too, has seen spikes as its users increasingly take their work and personal lives online.

Webex, which Cisco acquired in 2007, saw its usage spike after the pandemic hit and it has sustained that growth, said Jeetu Patel, Cisco’s senior vice president for security and applications. It now has around 600 million meeting participants as of October 2020, up from 324 million in March. 

For comparison, Zoom said it had over 300 million daily meeting participants in April, and Microsoft Teams said it had 115 million daily active users in October. Though the numbers are not an apples to apples comparison because each company counts users differently, it shows though is that there isn’t one winner of the video conferencing market.

“The reality is, this market is so hot that all of us are doing pretty well,” Patel told Insider. 

Webex is widely used by all kinds of organizations from public agencies to healthcare companies. Cisco’s challenge, nowadays, is proving that Webex is not a stodgy, uncool alternative to its younger, more buzzed-about rival Zoom. Patel, formerly the chief strategy and product officer at Box, joined last year with the goal of changing that perception.  

His strategy is to help Webex differentiate itself from peers by innovating rapidly and investing heavily in building out Webex’s artificial intelligence capabilities.

He wants to use AI to help Webex work towards its main goal of making meetings more inclusive. It stems from Cisco’s overall mission to “power an inclusive future for all,” Patel said, reflecting a focus it announced last year amid a larger reckoning on race and injustice in America.   

How Webex has been adding features to make meetings more inclusive

Video conferencing tools have the ability to make corporate life much more inclusive, by removing boundaries like geography and language in the workplace, Patel said. Something remote work has proven is that people don’t need to be in one office to be productive, in his view. 

Over the last year, Webex has added several features focused on making virtual meetings more inclusive than in- person ones. Some of those features were designed and built internally at Cisco, and some came via acquisitions like BabbleLabs, which added background noise reduction to video calls.

One feature that the Webex team built in-house is roundtable, which gives each person in the call three minutes to voice their opinion before opening a topic up to discussion. In that first part, when someone’s on their three minute turn, everyone else is muted. The goal is to ensure a few people don’t monopolize the conversation, and everyone’s opinion is heard, Patel said.

“That’s fundamentally a cultural shift that you couldn’t have done if you were meeting in person,” Patel. “Those kinds of things might actually create far greater equality of opportunity than what we have in the past.”

Webex is also applying AI to a new tool called the Webex graph, meant to give people analytics about their work day, meeting-to-downtime ratio, and the amount of time they talk in meetings, among other metrics. 

There’s also a new feature that translates the transcript of a meeting into 109 languages, to remove language barriers in meetings. 

WexEx will continue to add new AI functions in the wake of recent acquisitions like Slido and IMImobile, announced in December. Slido will allow users to gather the sentiment of a meeting, no matter how large, with surveys and polls. 

“One of the things we want to do is even if it is a broadcast style communication, we want it to feel intimate and authentic,” Patel said. 

‘There’s so much innovation left’

Another focus area for Webex is helping people more closely mimic the spontaneity of an office environment, with the benefits of working remotely. 

“As a community, we have not done well on the spontaneous communication side. I think there’s a ton of room for innovation over there,” Patel said. 

Webex now has an option for people to have a “quick sync” where they can spontaneously set up a 10-minute meeting with someone. It removes the need to block off large chunks of time on the calendar and mimics the way people might drop by someone’s desk in an office to discuss something. At the end of 10 minutes, the meeting automatically ends. 

And that’s just the start, Patel suggests, with much more Webex and other video conferencing providers can do to innovate on their products. Now that it’s well-established that video meetings can be productive, Patel believes that there’s plenty of room to make them actually better than their in-person counterparts. 

“People keep thinking, oh now this market’s all done. No, this market’s in the very early days because there’s so much innovation left,” Patel said.

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