Cisco Sparks it Up at the Collaboration Summit

17 Dec 2015

The big news at the Cisco Collaboration Summit recently was all about Spark. In addition to Spark the Service, Cisco also announced Spark Hybrid Services, and Spark for Developers. Cisco introduced Spark (nee Project Squared) last year at Enterprise Connect, and at that time Spark was essentially a messaging application. According to Rowan Trollope, Spark was "redesigned to deliver a magical experience." (Note: Spark has moved from a delightful experience to a magical one). The new Cisco Spark Service delivers Messaging, Calling, and Meetings from the cloud, while connecting with a range of Cisco phones and video conferencing systems and endpoints using the new Spark Room OS and Spark Phone OS.

Hosted by Cisco and sold by partners, Spark is a "complete business collaboration service from the Cisco cloud that enables customers to message, meet or call anyone, anywhere and anytime." The new Cisco Spark service provides a single user experience, delivered through the cloud, enabling users' Cisco phones and videoconferencing devices to connect directly to the cloud.

Spark provides three key functions:

  • Messaging - Business messaging providing one-to-one and team messaging (chat) in virtual rooms. It supports persistent chat, content sharing, and iteration capabilities.
  • Calling - Full business class telephony service hosted in the cloud, available to companies of all sizes. A range of Cisco phones will be upgraded with the new Spark OS and connect to the Spark Calling service. While PSTN calling will be available, it will be offered through partners and not directly from Cisco. Basic telephony capabilities that Cisco will provide include: Video calling, Single number reach, Call forward, call transfer, DND, and Hold/resume. Advanced features include Auto attendant, Hunt groups, Shared lines, Video on hold, Desk phone control, Ad hoc conferencing, and Zero touch meetings.
  • Meetings - Enterprise-class conferencing delivered from the cloud, including scheduled and ad hoc meetings, audio, video and web meetings, plus before/during/after meeting messaging and content.

Spark users can get Messaging, Meeting, and Calling capabilities for "as low as $25 per user per month," and as low as $8.50 per user per month without the Calling service.

In addition to the Spark Service, Cisco also introduced three Spark Hybrid Services (formerly called Fusion), including Calendar service, Call Service Connect, and Call Service Aware. Spark Hybrid Services currently support Cisco call control (HCS and UCM) and not third-party vendors. For example, customers with on-premises call control with Cisco Communications Manager or an HCS service can add Spark Message or Meeting and have them work together. The Hybrid Services requires Cisco Expressway, but the hybrid capabilities are available at no additional cost.

In this video interview, Ross Daniels, Senior Director of Collaboration Marketing, talks about some of the new Cisco announcements including the Spark Service capabilities, Spark Room OS, Spark Phone OS, Spark Hybrid Services, and Spark for Developers.

We heard several times throughout the conference that Spark isn't just a messaging app - it's a platform. Features include teams, APIs and integrations, search, room filters, pairing with endpoints, refreshed design, and more. The goal is to make the entire platform programmable.

To dig a bit deeper into what this means, I spoke with Jason Goecke, GM of Tropo Business Unit. Tropo enables developers to embed communication capabilities into apps and business processes. In this video intervew, Jason talks about Tropo and what it provides to developers, use cases for Tropo and Spark, and how partners are using Tropo's tools and APIs.

The success of Cisco Collaboration in general, and Spark in particular, is in large part dependent on Cisco's sales strategy and channel partners. Some of the value-added opportunities for Cisco channel partners include packaged offers, integrations, hybrid services, network assessments, adoption services, consulting, application development, support/lifecycle, and business process consulting (business process integration).

In this video interview, Andy Dignan, Sr. Director of Cloud Collaboration Sales and Go To Market, discusses Cisco Collaboration Group's go-to-market strategy, as well as how Spark Hybrid Services will be delivered by Cisco's various types of channel partners.

The new Spark Service capabilities, as well as the open platform that enables developers to create innovative applications and integrations, is very intriguing, and I believe that Cisco has a real winner on its hands. Cisco is now in direct competition with UCaaS companies like RingCentral and 8x8, as well as providing a more compelling response to Microsoft's recent Office 365 announcements.

That being said, there were a lot of questions and concerns about the future of Jabber, although Cisco made it clear that Jabber is not going away any time soon and that there are different use cases for Spark and Jabber. For one, Spark is cloud-based and Jabber is premises-based, and there are still many companies that for various reasons aren't willing to move to the cloud and still require Jabber.

One issue I found with Spark is that it doesn't provide presence capabilities. While Trollope and others downplayed the importance of presence, I believe it's very important for productive real-time communications. Another issue is the potential for "room explosion," as each interaction opens or adds to a Spark Room. While Cisco discussed search and filtering capabilities to make it easier to find the information and people in various rooms, I could easily see Spark being challenged by some of the problems we currently have with email today.

Other issues also need to be addressed, such as the future of WebEx, which I expect will become part of Spark in the next year or two, as well as the impact of the Spark Service on Cisco HCS service provider partners. For the short term, I see HCS as being targeted to large enterprises, while Spark is targeted at small and mid-sized businesses. However, I would expect to see the Spark Service eventually scale to meet the needs of larger organizations, which will impact HCS.

I found it very interesting when Rowan Trollope told the audience that "UC is a great idea, but in the hands of the user it never really delivered on the promise." He added, "Phones and video were designed long before the cloud and mobile," and that "today's experience is far from magical and simple." I have to agree that UC for the most part hasn't delivered on the promise - there's no unification and communications and collaboration is still too complex. However, I don't believe that Spark is the panacea - it adds yet another interface and another place to go for messaging and collaboration. Email is still separate, and workers still rely on multiple messaging applications and platforms that are not integrated. While Spark's open APIs will make it easier for application developers to create integrations with business processes and applications, we'll have to see if Spark really does provide the magical experience we're all hoping for.


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