Cisco adds AI tools, cheaper devices to WebEx chat offerings

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(Bloomberg) -- Cisco Systems Inc., the biggest maker of the gear companies use to connect employees, said it’s expanding the use of artificial intelligence in its online collaboration and video-conference products to make meetings more useful and efficient.

Menial tasks such as scheduling, taking notes and following up on requests will be taken care of by machines in the future, according to Rowan Trollope, who heads the networking company’s Applications division. Cisco is unveil updates to its market-leading WebEx collaboration products that will include Assistant, an artificial intelligence-based meeting helper. The company is also offering cheaper hardware to make the service available in any room with a TV as well as a subscription service with online storage, security and analytics.

Cisco’s push is aimed at making it easier for WebEx’s 100 million users to stay hooked and keep them from drifting onto cheaper or free services. It’s part of a broader effort to respond to the networking industry’s move away from expensive, purpose-built hardware toward a focus on getting more revenue from services provided over the internet. Trollope’s division has been the main driver of recent growth in Cisco’s deferred software and subscription revenue, which now tops $5.4 billion.

“At first you’ll see mundane examples of AI, but then they’ll get more and more refined,” he said. “All of those jobs that can be done by humans we can automate.”

Companies have long been able to spend on high-end technology to get quality video-conferencing service in a limited number of rooms in their facilities. In order for a service like WebEx to have broader appeal, it needed to become cheaper and easier to access, Trollope said.

WebEx Share is a "palm-sized" adapter that will plug into the back of a TV and pair with the system wirelessly. That will turn the television into a smart monitor for sharing screens and documents. The information is stored by the system for access later and doesn’t disappear when the meeting ends.

While collaboration chat rooms, voice calls and sharing presentations all have their place, video is the key, said the Cisco executive -- even for artificial intelligence. While voice recognition alone is good for note-taking, for example, people and machines can make better decisions about follow-up actions when they can see if participants are rolling their eyes and being sarcastic when they tell you something’s a great idea.

The largest maker of networking gear won’t fall into the trap of making its products exclusive, Trollope said. San Jose, California-based Cisco is providing ways for the service to work with competing communications offerings, such as those from Slack Technologies Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google, and will make it easy for users of Microsoft Corp.’s Office 365 to use WebEx to work together.

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