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Noise cancellation - Cisco, Microsoft, Zoom

A Level Playing Field – In the Cloud Communications World, Differentiators Do Not Last

1 Sep 2020

Last month, as part of the EC20 Virtual event, Brent Kelly and I did an extensive analysis of Cisco Webex, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom. It was a comprehensive review of the overall solutions, considered from a range of areas over two hours.

One part of the analysis was examining the in-meeting noise reduction of each vendor. As we have all seen as we have moved to online all the time, background noise can become an irritant. And with many new video and meeting participants not aware of muting, it can actually impede the meetings.

To test this for our session, we set up a set of tests for each product. On one end of an active meeting on each platform we played a series of audio clips: a dog barking, a phone ringing, and the incessant sound of a keyboard typing. We then recorded the other end. All levels were matched in the input and the outputs were compared.

Quite frankly, we believed that both Zoom and Microsoft had superior background noise cancelling than the Cisco version. In fact, Zoom appeared to have the overall best noise cancelling as can be seen in the slide.

Noise cancellation - Cisco, Microsoft, Zoom

In fact, both Brent and I commented on how effective the Zoom keyboard algorithm was. If you listened to the recording, you could hear the algorithm significantly reducing the keyboard sounds to virtually nothing. This can be seen in the slide by looking to the far right of each of the typing clips above. Notice how the Zoom tail goes away more than either of the others and how much noise is still there in the Cisco version.

All this changed this week when Cisco announced they were acquiring BabbleLabs. Cisco plans to integrate BabbleLabs’ noise reduction across the entire suite of collaboration solutions, first with Webex Meetings.

Jeetu Patel, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Cisco Security and Applications Business Unit, and oversees the Cisco Collaboration Group said, “We’re thrilled to welcome BabbleLabs’ team of highly skilled engineers. Their technology is going to provide our customers with yet another important innovation – automatically removing unwanted noise – to continue enabling exceptional Webex meeting experiences.” While the value of the deal was not disclosed, BabbleLabs had raised $18 million through its seed and Series A financing in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

What is clear is that a lead in the new UCaaS world will not last long. And innovation to differentiate will continue. For example, Microsoft introduced Together Mode that removes the background from images and rearranges in an overlay space. This allows either more video participants in a space or for all of the images to be 50% larger than in the typical “Hollywood Squares” video participant image. This innovation has been featured in the NBA playoffs to enable virtual fans at the games.

Noise cancellation - Cisco, Microsoft, Zoom

With both Cisco Webex and Zoom already implementing the capability to strip the background and insert a virtual background, how long before similarly enhanced overlay visual presentations appear in their solutions? Together Mode was announced on July 8; the lag to similar capabilities in Webex and Zoom will be a good indicator of the innovation lag in our industry.

The new BabbleLabs announcement by Cisco reinforces a conclusion that Brent and I came to in our session. Feature differentiation in the cloud will be difficult if not impossible to retain. Innovations will rapidly commoditize. The 18- to 30-month lead time of the premises world is gone, and cloud time equalizes rapidly.

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