Spark Continues to Evolve

26 Jan 2017

At its Spark Event in San Francisco, Cisco introduced the new Spark Board and Spark Meetings to revolutionize the way people meet. That's a pretty tall order, but Cisco seems to have done a great job in simplifying and improving the meeting experience.

While Cisco Spark started off as a messaging app, it has evolved to much more, which was Cisco's plan all along. Cisco is positioning Spark as the primary tool to communicate and collaborate with other people, noting that it will transition the way people work. During a pre-launch analyst briefing, Cisco discussed the new Spark Board, as well as "Spark the application." The latter wasn't really discussed much at the launch event, as the big headliner was the Spark Board.

Noting that 95% of meeting rooms are a technology wasteland filled with dongles, wires, and incompatible hardware, Cisco collaboration head honcho Rowan Trollope brought out a wheel barrow filled with all the elements needed today for typical meetings and conferences.

Trollope explained that he wanted to make a product that is easy to use and does everything you need. He introduced Spark Board as a "revolutionary new product" designed to go in every meeting room in the world. Spark Board is three products in one: a wireless presentation device, a digital whiteboard, and a conferencing device, all brought together based on the Spark cloud. Cisco emphasizes that Spark Board is not a videoconferencing product, but rather "a revolutionary all-in-one meeting room device."

Trollope has been practically obsessed with simplifying the way we collaborate, focusing on design and the user experience (a younger version of Steve Jobs without the turtle necks and cooler shoes?), and the new Spark Board is a tour de force of elegant design. The design of Spark Board was described as "Scandinavian minimalist design with California approachability." What's really cool about the Spark Board is that it is entirely wireless and there are no cables except for a power cable; basically you plug it in and it works. It's entirely powered by the cloud and delivered as a service through the Cisco Spark cloud.

As a presentation device for sharing content, anything you have access to on a computer, tablet, or mobile device can be displayed on the device. As a digital whiteboard, you can create, draw, and whiteboard on a blank canvas or any document, even from a laptop or mobile device. The board can be paired with a Spark team space, enabling users on a mobile device to view and annotate documents in real time while collaborating with others. Team members can edit content such as documents and drawings at the same time. The content is saved to your Spark Space to be accessed whenever needed. As a conferencing tool, Spark Board is a video and voice system; users can start an HD voice or video call instantly, and the system adjusts to the speaker's volume and position in the room.

Based on the demos I saw, I was quite impressed with the capabilities of the Spark Board and how easy it is to use. As soon as I walked into one of the four meeting rooms demonstrating various use cases of the Spark Board, the board recognized me, although I wasn't given access to join the meeting since I wasn't part or the team or invited to the meeting (security - check!). I was especially impressed with the ability to swipe a video call from an iPhone to the Spark Board and back to the iPhone.

Watching the demos at the event, I really got the feel for how the Spark Board provides an immersive video experience, as show below.

In addition to the Spark Board, Cisco also introduced Spark Meetings, which adds some of Cisco's WebEx conferencing capabilities to extend the meeting to include the time before and after the meeting. When scheduling a meeting, the Spark Meeting app creates a team space, and users can join the meeting from within the app or their calendar, and start sharing content. According to CTO Jonathan Rosenberg, the Spark space is like "a continuous meeting." People can be added to the space and have access to all the chats that have taken place previously, and access all the material that has been shared in the space. Persistent content is key, as all files and related content are included in the team space, and any new whiteboard content created during the meeting is retained in the space. Rosenberg notes, "We have freed the whiteboard from its cage. No more taking pictures of the whiteboard - it's now a living document."

During the event I had the opportunity to speak with Ross Daniels, head of Collaboration Marketing. In this video interview, Daniels discussed Cisco's new announcements and what they mean to customers and the industry.

Spark has come a long way since it's humble beginnings as a messaging app. Spark Board and Spark Meetings are just the beginning of what we'll be seeing as Spark continues to evolve. It's nice to see that meetings are getting less painful - in some ways, anyway.

Unified Communications Strategies

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