Cisco Spark – is this the New Collaboration Era?
I’m inclined to think so, and that’s how Rowan Trollope framed the overall theme of last week’s Cisco Collaboration Summit. Several fellow UC Experts were there, and some of us have already shared our thoughts here on UCStrategies and elsewhere. I don’t want to duplicate what’s already been covered, and will focus here on some key differentiators that I think support Rowan’s theme.
I’ve got a new acronym that sets the stage for all this – UC&C – Unbelievably Crowded and Confusing. We’ve got too many vendors selling too many variations of a solution that doesn’t have a readily defined problem set. Yes, there are lots of ways for UC&C to add value, but any deployment these days requires some leap of faith. To get past this, something has to give, and it starts with the vendors.
Kudos to Cisco for taking a bottom-up approach to redefine the solution around a problem set that decision-makers can understand. Nobody has really cracked the code yet, but based on what we saw last week, I think Cisco has come the closest so far. Rowan rightly noted that two key UC building blocks – telephony and video – were designed pre-mobility and pre-Internet, and that just won’t cut it for today’s collaboration needs.
So, they’ve re-designed these as part of Spark Service for the cloud and from the cloud, and when you start like this from a clean slate you’re already ahead of the pack. As to whether we really are in a new era, we’ll find out next year, but I’ll start with three distinct things Cisco has done to change the game.
Big idea #1 – Encrypted search
I think the likes of Slack have led Cisco to seriously rethink the collaboration landscape, and from what I can tell, search is the real value-add for these upstarts. I’m not saying “upstarts” in a negative way – they haven’t emerged to put the UC vendors out of business – they’ve simply started fresh and are solving today’s problems with today’s tools. Beyond that, however, search is what makes Slack special as this allows the platform to be more than a passive place to share information and then move on once the job is done. Slack wants the platform to always be in use, and for that you need search to access and manage all the various threads that go into a collaboration effort. This is where context comes from, which is integral to using communications to drive productivity.
I’m no expert on encryption, but this is a must-have for UCaaS, otherwise nobody will trust a cloud-based solution. Spark is cloud-based, but if all the activity is encrypted, end users can’t search, and that poses a big engineering problem. Well, Cisco claims to have solved this with new technology, but they were short on details. To whatever extent they can really do this, it’s a big step forward for cloud and puts Spark on a level playing field with Slack and their peers. You need both encryption and search for effective cloud-based collaboration, and if it’s more than just magic – as some of this was referred to during the presentations – then this will be one way Cisco has cracked the code.
Big idea #2 – Business-class telephony in the cloud
This is nothing new in the UCaaS space, but it’s the first time I’ve ever heard those words from Cisco. Believe it or not, the IP phone business has never been stronger for Cisco, selling a record 2.4 million units in Q4. That market isn’t going away any time soon – noteworthy itself – but fixed line endpoints are really just part of the telephony story. The real business comes from being cloud based where telephony service becomes a seamless application in the overall Spark experience. As noted earlier, the entire solution needs to be cloud-based if Cisco is going to truly reinvent collaboration around what drives the market now.
Let’s just say the demos were impressive – out of the box, up and running with dial tone in minutes. Activation only needs a QR code that you get via email on your smart phone, which is then scanned by the camera on the IP phone. This is another example where it looks like magic, but works really well. No doubt here about being easy to use, and the big selling point for IT is that no infrastructure is required; the service runs entirely over the public Internet.
Big idea #3 – Ultrasonic proximity
This was a new concept to me, but the science has been around a long time. Basically it’s about using ultrasonic sensors to detect objects, and Cisco has applied this to the video conferencing experience. They call this Spark Meetings, and the idea is that when you enter a meeting room, the video system can detect your presence via your smart phone. You then have the option to initiate the collaboration session from your phone instead of interfacing directly with the video console. They also refer to this as a Zero Touch meeting – it can all be activated by the wireless connection between your smart phone and the Spark Meetings platform.
Yes, this too seems magical, and it certainly looks simpler than most any other conferencing experience, where mobile devices usually need to be paired with the premise-based system. Like the rest of Spark, the applications are all in the cloud, so any business can deploy it. That’s part of the bigger picture, where every aspect of collaboration is easy to use, and being cloud-based it’s also easy to deploy.
Every UC&C vendor is trying to break through in this market, and I haven’t heard any of the above from the other players. At face value, these are differentiators, and are the kinds of things vendors need to do for a truly ground-up approach to collaboration in 2015. It remains to be seen whether these innovations are more like magic than game changers, but Cisco is definitely on the right track in terms of trying to usher in a new era of collaboration.
Of course, many challenges remain, and if you follow what other UC Experts have been saying, you’ll get the gist of what those issues are. There’s a lot more I could talk about from the summit, but will leave it at that for now, and hopefully we can continue the conversation in the comments section or on social media.