Cisco Bets on Spark: Message, Meet, Call

Dec 09, 2015

At the 2015 Collaboration Summit, Spark—the vendor’s collaboration solution that can deliver team messaging, instant live meetings, and VoIP calling—was a strong area of focus. Indeed, from an enterprise communications point of view, Spark appears to be Cisco’s focus going forward. With the acquisitions of Tropo and Acano, Cisco is doubling down on team collaboration.

Not surprisingly, many questions came up about Cisco’s existing products—all of which have, in years past, been hailed as “the single focus” of the developers’ efforts going forward. Is Jabber dead? No; Cisco’s 30 million users can keep their licenses in full. What about WebEx? Still lots of use cases for that market-share leader. The bottom line: Cisco’s other collaboration apps and services will run parallel to Spark, with sensible, limited integration to come over time.

That makes sense; Spark is not intended to do what Cisco’s other products do. It’s really meant to be a “business messaging” service, as Rowan Trollope, Senior VP and General Manager of the Collaboration Technology Group, put it. The goal: decrease (or even eliminate) email; offer persistent team rooms for conversation and content; and support ad-hoc real-time meetings using a kind of streamlined web and video conferencing tool. With the team spaces, it’s going against tools like Slack, on the consumer side, and Unify’s Circuit or Microsoft’s Office 365/Lync offerings for the enterprise; with its cloud-based PBX capability, it competes with offerings from providers like Ring Central; and with its meetings, it’s more like Blue Jeans.

And it looks great. But I continue to have doubts about just how deep the use of a tool like Spark can go.

In the keynote, Trollope described collaboration tools as needing to create a “magical moment.” I understand that there is always marketing hype around new product announcements, but it seems unlikely that “joy” is one of the emotions most of us feel when we are about to start a business meeting—and frankly, I don’t see Spark changing that. It looks sleek, certainly, and if a company is using 100 percent Spark services, its users will see some very cool features, seamlessly. But most Cisco customers already have a large deployment of other, older UCC tools—everything from WebEx to premises-based call control to video MCUs and endpoints. And although the vendor also announced Hybrid Services, a reboot of Fusion designed to deliver the full set of capabilities to organizations that will, by necessity or choice, want to run the Spark OS on older, more traditional endpoints and apps, it doesn’t yet deliver the seamless experience you get with total cloud.

And that could pose a problem. Motivating businesses to invest in new technology is never easy, and the track record of apps and services like Spark is not great. Indeed, the track record for more mundane “unified communications” is not great; Trollope admitted as much in his keynote, acknowledging that the dream of UC never really materialized—partly because of the tech itself (integration is hard) and partly because of user inertia. Will so-called “business messaging” be different? Only if the case can be made that it will be revolutionary for all enterprise users—and today, at least, I’m not sure it can.

In the coming days, I’ll spend some time looking at what types of employees a product like Spark is aimed at, as well as investigate some of the changes we’re seeing across the board with enterprise IT. In the meantime, if you want have thoughts about how Spark could benefit your business, please post them here.

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Melanie Turek


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