Cisco and Microsoft - Two Approaches to Room-Based Collaboration

Cisco and Microsoft - Two Approaches to Room-Based Collaboration

29 Jan 2017

Avaya's recent news has overshadowed everything else in the market, but Cisco and Microsoft are very good at staying in the limelight. As it turned out, last week both companies had collaboration updates, and I happened to get briefings on both. Cisco's latest iteration of Spark has been in the works for some time, and with so much at stake in terms of owning the collaboration experience, Microsoft was not going to remain on the sidelines.

These updates weren't hyped as a Super Bowl-like showdown, but given their market power, attention must be paid. Collaboration is a broad concept with many variations, and it's really interesting to see both companies focus on exactly the same use case at exactly the same time. While the stars were certainly lined up for a winner-take-all clash, it's also interesting to note that each company has come to market with different approaches to a similar problem set.

No doubt each believes theirs to be the best path to collaboration gold, and the marketplace will ultimately decide. If you didn't catch one or both of these updates, I'm going to summarize the highlights for each in this post, along with key takeaways.

Cisco Spark and the "Golden Gate Challenge"

Rowan Trollope set the stage appropriately by talking about the host city's icon, the Golden Gate Bridge. Just as conventional thinking held that the bridge couldn't be built, a similar sentiment holds for having productive meetings in conference rooms. He dramatically rolled out a wheelbarrow full of the patchwork collection of hardware and cabling that are typically found in meeting rooms, illustrating the complexity both for IT and end users.

Not quite a Steve Jobs moment, but this was the buildup to the Spark Board, Cisco's solution to the enduring problem set.

No doubt, it's a sleek product, and Spark has evolved in a big way from a cloud-based messaging platform to a complete collaboration solution built around very sophisticated hardware.

A lot has been written elsewhere about the product attributes, so I won't cover that ground here. Instead, I want to compare the approaches taken by Cisco and Microsoft, as both channels and end buyers will have to choose one of these - or neither depending on what else is being considered. There is also potential to bring more confusion to the market, since both companies have existing offerings that address pieces of these new solutions.

For Cisco, the problem set concerns how the disparate mishmash of conferencing equipment makes meetings a bad experience, and that hurts productivity. Rowan noted that less than 10% of meeting rooms are video-enabled, and Cisco believes that's the key to addressing the problem. Telepresence is a great solution, but only for a tiny segment of the market. With so little video adoption in these spaces, there's clearly a big need to address.

It's hard to say how much influence their Apple partnership had on the development of Spark Board, but the elements certainly are Apple-like. In short, think of Spark Board as a giant tablet (two versions - 55" and 70" - "so beautiful, you can hang it on a wall" as Rowan declared. They have certainly incorporated Apple's ease-of-use elements, with no visible cables, only one button to operate, and an impressive "capacitative" (post-truth fact check time - is that really a word?) touch screen. Everything else - "all the magic" - happens in the cloud, so this is very much a mix of a hardware-based product and a hosted subscription service.

They've certainly done some great engineering inside the board, which houses a 12-microphone VoiceTrack audio system, along with a fixed lens camera that captures everyone in 4k video for a theater-like experience. This makes Spark Board a tidy all-in-one solution that does away with the messiness of multivendor premise-based elements that usually don't play together very well.

Am not so sure this is all that revolutionary, and it sure raises questions about where this leaves Jabber, WebEx and telepresence. These are all standalone Cisco offerings, but Spark Board is really taking the best of each and rolling that up into a new solution. There's certainly a lot to like here, but for me, there are two other elements that warrant the most attention.

1. Whiteboarding

Cisco has clearly invested a lot in making Spark Board more than a passive endpoint for making meetings better. Again, this speaks to Apple's influence with touch screens and the interactive nature of using a tablet. In cases where conventional whiteboards languish in a corner because they can't be integrated with anything else, Spark Board will have great appeal. I'm not convinced this is a major pain point for meetings, but if so, then Cisco has definitely bet right here.

Another important Apple tie-in is the deep integration of Spark with the iPhone. Rowan provided a great demo where a finger swipe from his iPhone seamlessly moved the session on to the Smart Board, from which point he could continue sharing with the group directly from the board. This deep integration makes Spark Board more than a new endpoint in the meeting room - it's another example of thinking through the end-to-end process to make the meeting experience simple and streamlined.

I have another reason for referencing tablets here. Tablets were never built with telephony in mind, and neither was Spark Board. Not once did I hear any reference by Cisco to telephony integration, which would have been unthinkable a few short years ago. Voice is very much part of the Spark Board experience, but only as part of a video call. This is another indication of how the collaboration space has evolved, and even though Cisco still sells lots of IP phones, they have no place today in meeting rooms.

2. Security

CTO Jonathan Rosenberg covered this ground, and started from an unlikely place. We tend to be careless when using whiteboards, and when the work isn't erased, it poses a potential security risk. The same applies when whiteboarding in digital settings, when people might sketch out top of mind ideas that happen to be highly sensitive. This is a different mode of communicating, and it's one we don't normally associate with network security.

With Spark Board, this is just one mode used in meetings, and while they all need to be secure, Jonathan stressed whiteboards as a particular need to be addressed. The end result is a Key Management Service, where the originating data is encrypted before traversing the network, and can only be unencrypted by the key holder at the receiving end. Network security is not my forte, but as he explained it, even when it's in Cisco's cloud, they have no way of unlocking the packets. At face value, this level of security appears to be a competitive advantage for Cisco, but I can't give you the final word on that.

Microsoft's Skype Room System

My briefing on this was much shorter, but the differing approach to the same problem set is what really struck me. They talked about similar challenges for making meetings more effective, but were a bit more precise than Cisco when defining the opportunity, saying that 97% of meeting rooms aren't video-enabled. I have no idea what data source this is based on, but it's in line with what Cisco was saying, and there's no need to split hairs when we know the basic problem is quite pervasive.

Just as Spark Board is about getting workers to use the Spark platform for meetings, Room Systems does the same for Skype for Business. In this regard, both vendors are after the same thing - using video as a drawing card to use their collaboration/UC platforms during room-based meetings. Immersive telepresence is a different experience, just as is using PC-based video for informal/ad hoc meetings where the task at hand is pretty basic. With these announcements, both companies are looking for something in between - better than a desktop experience, and more accessible than telepresence, but also a richer form of collaboration in spaces that everyone uses but with subpar results until now.

To make room-based meetings more effective, Microsoft has focused on a similar process as Cisco but with a different methodology. Keeping Spark Board in mind, here are four key ways that Skype Room System differs.

1. More Conventional Approach to Meetings

Rather than reinvent the meeting experience, Microsoft has retained many of the familiar elements. One example is having a touch controller located in the center of the room for all to use. For Cisco, getting rid of external elements like a remote controller is key to their all-in-one Spark Board design. Another example with Room System is the focus on supporting PSTN access to join meetings remotely.

Of course, PSTN is a big part of how SfB is evolving, indicating that telephony still has an important role to play in meetings. In this regard, Spark seems targeted more at those willing and able to use all the latest collaboration tools, while Room System tends to reflect how everyday users collaborate, and simply wants workers to make better use of what's already familiar, especially SfB.

2. Partner-Driven Approach

This has long been the Microsoft way, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that. Instead of being an end-to-end Cisco solution, Room System has SfB at the core, with best-of-breed hardware partners; namely Logitech for the cameras, Crestron for the big screen, and Polycom for the speakerphones.

Channels always like having more products to sell, and this provides them with lots of options, as Microsoft has a variety of bundles based on the size of the meeting space. In this regard, Cisco's approach is much simpler with just two choices - a 55" or a 70" screen. The approach here is definitely more complex, but that also means Microsoft can cater to a wider set of needs that will appeal to both channels and IT decision makers.

3. No Whiteboarding

This was really the biggest point of departure, as Cisco has made whiteboarding a core part of their value proposition. Here again, Microsoft has taken a more conventional approach, placing more emphasis on video and voice to drive collaboration. During the briefing, it was made clear that Microsoft does not see whiteboarding being integral to collaboration, at least for this particular offering. That's what Surface Hub is for, which they view as being complementary to Room System, so for now, you can't have both.

They added that there will be "future announcements" about whiteboard collaboration, and perhaps they're taking a wait and see approach with Spark Board. For Microsoft, Room System is about driving SfB adoption rather than reinventing the collaboration experience, and I think these choices will largely dictate how the market responds. On a practical level, it's worth noting that not having whiteboarding helps keep costs down, and that will also impact which way the market will go. I didn't get much pricing detail from the briefing, but even if taking the Lego approach to building a Room System, my sense is this will still be less costly than Spark Board.

4. Windows Environment is IT-friendly

I found this another point of difference that also speaks to a more conventional approach with Room System. With Windows being so ubiquitous, they made a good point in terms of being IT-friendly. Collaboration can involve a lot of endpoints, and when they're all running on the same OS, it's much easier for IT to set policies to optimize SfB performance, manage privacy settings, control access to data, etc. Whereas the Spark demo was very much about the end user experience - with the rest of the "magic" happening in the Cisco cloud - I found Microsoft's messaging more holistic by also emphasizing how Room System makes life easier for IT. On the other hand, there was minimal discussion about security, and that's one area where I'd say Cisco has really got it covered.


Whether you want to buy either of these, you'll have to wait a bit. The press releases need to be read carefully, and while both companies have announced a lot of exciting things, nothing is being shipped quite yet. Some things will be available imminently, but given how close together these two announcements were, there is clearly a sense of urgency to be first to market. By extension, there's some hype to get past, and given how different their approaches are, you'd better know what you're getting, and hopefully this article will help you know the right questions to be asking.

Unified Communications Strategies

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