Further to SAG, and the Conventional Wisdom Trap

Michael O'Neil

Here's a quick update from Las Vegas, where I'm attending the Cisco Partner Summit...


It appears that Cisco is taking dead aim at the SAG problem I mentioned in my last post. The first day of the summit was given over to announcements aimed at accelerating networking technology adoption within the SMB market. From a product perspective, the highlight was the introduction of the Small Business Communication System, which has been "purpose-built for small business."


The SBCS is currently a suite of products centered around the UC500, which the vendor says "supports the portfolio of Cisco Unified IP Phones, including the softphone Cisco IP Communicator, Internet connectivity with firewall protection, virtual private networks (VPNs), and wireless LAN access for reliable, highly secure communications."


I'm not particularly interested in products generally -- nor in networking products specifically -- but the design objective of the UC500, which is to enhance ease of adoption within SMBs by providing features like plug-and-play configuration in a device that "works the first time out of the box", is consistent with what I called on Dell to do for storage in my last post.


I am interested in channels, and it was clear from the balance of the day that Cisco has really thought through how to enable its channel to predictably and profitably serve small customers. The SBCS suite includes tools that enable partners to easily configure simple VoIP networks, and a remote monitoring facility that will let them support multiple users -- typically, users lacking dedicated IT staff (the example they used was a doctor's/dentist's office, but you can probably think of dozens more) -- from a central site.


One of the business partners present at a meeting I attended mentioned that the simplicity of the product and the associated tools would allow him to use "less senior" staff to support these smaller accounts.


And this, I think, is a really important point. One of the key constraints leading to SAG is the fact that it is hard to dedicate highly-qualified technical resources -- either on the IT staff of a small user, or with a VAR -- to small accounts, since these people have greater financial value in more complex environments. By enabling people with easy-to-acquire skills (the technical training consists of two days of free on-line education) to deploy the technology, Cisco has reduced the barriers to acquisition/deployment of advanced technology in the SMB space.


To be sure, there are still reasons to believe that SAG will still apply. I got a chance to ask Cisco CEO John Chambers whether he considered technical architecture or business architecture to be the key constraint to Web 2.0 adoption within SMBs. His immediate response was that the constraint to any type of adoption is always people; he later added that the SMB market struggles with IT adoption because the products are complex/difficult, and because they lack IT staff.


Clearly, Cisco is trying to address this in the design of both its SMB-focused products and the associated channel support structure (which includes, by the way, a new SMB-specific partner certification level - Cisco Select - which joins Premier, Silver, and Gold in the Cisco partner certification hierarchy). Given Cisco's prominent market share, it isn't too much of a stretch to think that this approach may reduce SAG, at least in the networking category. Dell, are you listening?


Tomorrow, I'll post a quick follow-up about my thoughts on the evolution of channels and "conventional thinking."

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