RobkoplowitzBy Rob Koplowitz

Today, Cisco announced its intent to acquire PostPath, a provider of email solutions. Interesting news. As parts of the collaboration stack become increasingly commoditized, the lure of moving the functionality up to the cloud and letting someone else take on the day to day responsibility becomes increasingly attractive. Cisco is at the center of this trend with its WebEx brand. Web conferencing has yet to gain widespread adoption in the corporate data center. It's almost as if the market just decided that as cool as web conferencing may be, I don't want to bother with installing servers and running them. Let someone else do that.

Is broad based collaboration the next big app to move to the cloud? Could be. Microsoft thinks so. They have moved quickly and decisively into cloud based collaboration, first with the acquisition of WebEx's chief competitor, PlaceWare (now LiveMeeting), and more recently with their announcement of Microsoft On-line Services. Google thinks so, too. They have been morphing their consumer collaboration offerings like G-Mail and Google Apps into business ready offerings for the last couple of years. IBM, too, with their evolving vision for Project Bluehouse and its focus on enterprise ready social computing in the cloud.

Taking on the enterprise email market is gutsy for Cisco. Many have tried. The role call of companies that have shown sustained, significant success is short: IBM, Microsoft, Novell. Tough crowd. Then again, Cisco is a very tough competitor, too. And they bring some assets. WebEx is a very strong, well-respected brand that has great relevance to knowledge workers. They have mind share. Certainly Cisco has the resources to make this happen. They can build the data centers, write the code, make additional acquisitions as needed. And if email is moving to the cloud, it could be just the disruption that could drive a new competitor like Cisco into the thick of the race.

Then again, email is really hard. It may well be the most mission-critical application running in many enterprises. The three that have been successful have invested heavily for a really long time to establish their positions as trusted providers. Cisco will need to earn a position among them. Of course, the cloud changes a lot, but not everything. If you want to be my email provider, you need to prove I can bet this part of business on you. All of the vendors shooting for the cloud will need to do this.

Cisco, Microsoft, IBM, Google: The first big hurdle? Prove you can make email work in the cloud with a few big happy enterprise customers. Whoever clears that hurdle gets to stay in the race. And it could prove to be an interesting race.