Cisco Spark Board: Excellent Packaging, No Wires, A Few Strings

29 Jan 2017

Cisco Spark Board: Excellent Packaging, No Wires, A Few Strings

By Marty Parker January 30, 2017 Leave a Comment
Cisco Spark Board: Excellent Packaging, No Wires, A Few Strings by Marty Parker

The Cisco Spark Launch event in San Francisco and online on January 24 was a top-notch production. The day-long event went from the always-excellent stagecraft of Rowan Trollope to the great hands-on demonstrations spaces to the small group sessions with Cisco’s Spark leaders on both technical and business topics. Thanks, Cisco, for the invitation. It was a pleasure and a privilege to be there.

Of course, the star of the show was the launch of the Cisco Spark Board – a very impressive package of meeting room technology. Here are some highlights of the event, from my perspective.

1. What A Tablet!!!

The Cisco Spark Board is actually, as they said, a 55” or 70” tablet running the Cisco Spark app. That really summarizes it. Of course, this "tablet" went way beyond the hand-held versions, with great camera capabilities and with a 12-microphone array of digital mics with beam forming. Spark Board has a touch screen for fingers or a pen, again just like a tablet. This device is designed to be the only device you need for an entire conference room – no more remote control pads or speakers and mics on the conference room table.

There was a major emphasis on the electronic white board functions, which really make the Spark Board attractive to use. This is a shared whiteboard function which enables concurrent participation from any Spark Board in the meeting and also from any user’s device using Spark that is logged into the same Spark meeting.

The Spark Board is entirely wireless. The only cable is the power cord.

However, the Spark Board is intended to be used as a Spark client (one of the "strings" to this product). This means the Spark Board is clearly intended for the Cisco ecosystem, rather than as the display for a mixed usage environment. Also, the price points seem quite high: $4,990 MSRP for the 55-inch and $9,990 MSRP for the 70-inch device. In addition, each device must have a $199 per month Spark Board subscription plus a SmartNet maintenance agreement for the physical device (a second "$tring" – dollar sign intended). Cisco pointed out that this is a reduction from the costs of traditional room systems, but that may only be true when compared to Cisco’s offerings, not to the options from other companies in this category.

2. A Meeting Room Paradigm Shift

A key point about the Spark Board use is that nothing in the conference room actually connects to the Spark Board. The Spark Board is a licensed “user” of Cisco Spark and connects to the Spark Cloud via Wi-Fi (or via RJ-45 wired network connection). The meetings are all conducted in a Spark space that is served from the Spark Cloud.

Any device in the same meeting room that wants to participate in the meeting actually joins into the meeting also over wireless or wired network connections and joins the meeting in the Spark Space in the Spark Cloud. The devices can identify the Spark Board room they are in by using Cisco’s clever ultrasound capabilities, but after that, anyone who wants to participate in the meeting along with the Spark Board has to also be a Spark licensed user with the Spark Client installed. (However, my Windows 10 tablet with the Spark application installed couldn’t "pair" with the Spark Board in the demo area. L)

This concept of connecting via the cloud rather than via cables in the room is not new – Microsoft Skype for Business has had this concept since the announcement of the Surface Hub, and Smart Technologies has had a similar architecture for some years now. It is important to really understand the importance of this architecture when discussing the network topology for these new types of meetings and meeting rooms.

Interoperation with existing conferencing rooms of various brands is supported by Cisco via "rooms" in the Spark Cloud.

3. Bandwidth and Resolution

Bandwidth is at 1080P60. Spark Board uses H.264 for the video streams. Cisco recommends planning for 1.0 to 1.5 megabits per second to support each Spark Board. The Spark Board screen is a 4K HD screen which Cisco said is essential since any lower resolution was disorienting when working with the Spark Board up close as a whiteboard.

4. Lots of APIs and Connectors

The event also featured a number of connections that have been made and that can be made between Cisco Spark and the applications and workflows in an organization. Those available now can be found in The capabilities for the future are supported by the Tropo platform that is now part of Cisco.

Some of these capabilities and implementations are quite impressive. However, many of the examples shown in the afternoon demos seemed inappropriate, such as the suggestion that consultation among a care-provider team about a patient’s X-ray result would be done by sharing the image as a file in a Spark Space rather than by simply screen-sharing the image from the Electronic Health Record or similar existing, secure and HIPAA-compliant repository.

No doubt that communications are being integrated with business processes and applications (as we have been saying here at UCStrategies since 2006), but it is important to lead the market in the optimal direction, not just with whatever mashup seems clever at the time.

5. Apparent Cisco Strategy

From my perspective, this announcement represents a very strategic move by Cisco, as they try to grow their “Collaboration” business unit beyond telephony and video conferencing.

It seems to me that Cisco is aiming for what some would call the collaborative workspace category, what Dave Michels calls Workstream Communications and Collaboration, and what I would call communications for the Collaboration and Management Usage Profiles. In other words, Spark is a candidate to be the provider of the communications that people need for their assigned job and workflows in collaborative roles. It is really important to note that only 20% to 30% of work is actually collaborative – most roles are transactional. You can read all about this in the series of articles referenced on the bottom half of this web page and posted here on

My analysis is that Cisco’s move with Spark Board is to capture all of the meetings in a company (which is definitely another "string"). Anyone who wants to participate in (not just attend) a meeting will need to have the Spark App on their devices. Cisco will therefore try to get enterprises to buy and deploy company-wide Spark licenses in support of these meetings. If an enterprise does that, then Cisco will argue that it’s just logical to use Spark as the organization’s collaboration platform, too.

We’ll see how this goes. Of course, Cisco is competing on the one hand with all of the role-based application providers (think Salesforce, Oracle, SAP and hundreds of other in vertical markets) who already provide the needed communications tools and on the other hand with the existing cloud collaboration providers (think Microsoft O365, IBM Cloud, Google Suite, et al. – (this article may be of interest). It may also be of interest to review the relevant Gartner Magic Quadrants for Social Software in the Workplace in which Cisco is not recognized and for Web Conferencing in which Cisco is a Leader.

The Cisco Spark and Spark Board launch was surely impressive. Cisco’s existing customers will certainly be getting a lot of pressure to move to Spark and Spark Board, but an evaluation of options seems appropriate before making that commitment. And, when making the evaluation, my recommendation is to look at the relevant Usage Profiles as your guide.

In any case, successful collaboration is a key factor for almost any organizations. Best of success in yours!

Unified Communications Strategies


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