Cisco Spark Board Shows Value of Spark Cloud

By now you know that Cisco held an event in San Francisco last week to dazzle and make us "ooh and ahh" with its shiny new toy – the Spark Board.

I won't go into much detail on the specifics of the board, as No Jitter editor Michelle Burbick did a nice job of that in this post (see also, "Cisco Pushes Into Immersive Group Collaboration" and "Sparking Thoughts on Cisco Spark").

The Spark Board has a strong value proposition as it can replace all of the other technology typically found in meeting spaces today; the conference room phone, video endpoint, PC under the desk, display on the wall and the myriad of cables can all be replaced with a single Spark Board. The touch interface combined with 4K display and unique VoiceTrack audio system for speaker tracking will raise the level of meeting effectiveness as some of the traditional pain points, like having to take pictures of a white board or having to figure out how to get a PowerPoint from someone's laptop to the display, will no longer be there.

At the show there were crowds around the displays in the solutions demo area, as people jockeyed for position to play with a new Spark Board ... and why not? Everyone loves new technology, especially when coupled with a slick, Apple-like demonstration as performed onstage by Rowan Trollope, Cisco SVP and GM of IoT and Applications.

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Looking Beyond the Device

The Spark Board is obviously flashy and has lots of sizzle, but it doesn't do much without the back-end Spark Cloud that powers it and delivers most of its value. The best way to think of the device is that it's another screen to take advantage of all the functionality in Cisco's cloud. A good analogy is what Apple has done with iCloud and iTunes. Buy a song once and listen to it on whatever Apple screen you want -- Apple Watch, phone, tablet, Apple TV, laptop... and the list goes on. The same goes for Spark -- send a message to someone from the Web interface and then read it on a mobile device. Store a file from the mobile application and then open it up on the Spark Board. This is the power of the cloud.

It's the combination of the cloud, hardware and software that makes Spark unique. I've seen some comparisons to Microsoft's Surface Hub but those are really just big Windows 10 computers. They're big and have touch screens, but that's where the similarities end. In theory one could install Microsoft Teams for messaging, Skype for Business for conferencing and calling, and perhaps Polycom for video on the Surface Hub and other user devices to replicate what Cisco has done, but it lacks the ease of use and fully integrated experience.

Think of iPod versus Zune. Apple gave us an integrated hardware, software and cloud experience where Microsoft sold a great MP3 player and left it up to the user to be the integration point between the music and device. History speaks for itself with the 2015 demise of the Zune, demonstrating the value of a fully integrated experience.

Now that the back-end cloud is built, the door is open for Cisco to create a wide range of new "screens" in the form of dedicated hardware and software clients to leverage the Spark Cloud. For example, I could see ruggedized smaller form factor devices for construction sites or Spark integration into a medical application. These types of devices would allow people in the field to collaborate with users that were in an office building. Imagine a doctor in a hospital receiving Spark messages from patient monitoring equipment. A collaborative session could be created with experts at a university to help diagnose a patient.

There is one difference between what Apple is doing and Cisco's approach: Apple is only building vertical devices. Cisco does have software clients on laptops, PCs, tablets, and phones, as it's unrealistic to expect users to buy a dedicated Spark endpoint to replace a personal device. The reason it works in meeting spaces is because current technology there is way behind what Cisco has built. As touch displays get better, I would expect to see Cisco take a dual approach where the customer can buy a Cisco built Spark Board but also have something like Amazon's Fire Stick that can turn a display (assuming it has the right level of technology) into a Spark Board.

Trollope dazzled us on stage with his live demo of the Spark Board that worked flawlessly as he performed a wide range of collaborative tasks. But what he was really demonstrating was what is possible with the Spark Cloud.

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