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Cisco's Spark Moves Lights Up Analyst Insight

As mentioned in today's No Jitter post, "Cisco Spark Grows Up," Cisco kicked off its annual Collaboration Summit with a flurry of news surrounding Spark, once merely a collaboration application but now a full-fledged, multi-services communications and collaboration platform.

Here's a quick rundown of some of what Cisco has planned with Spark:

Cisco's Spark strategy centers on mobility and the cloud.

If you, like me, have been waiting to see how Cisco would counter Microsoft's recent moves around Skype for Business and Cloud PBX, this is it. The Spark evolution is pretty much exactly what I was waiting for... and then some. But for a level-set, I checked in with a handful of our No Jitter bloggers, top industry analysts all. Here's what they had to say -- positive and negative -- about Cisco's latest moves with Spark.

Irwin Lazar, Vice President and Service Director, Nemertes Research
Cisco is now presenting Spark "as an alternative collaboration environment that offers more enterprise control than SaaS apps like Slack, that integrates into the rest of the Cisco portfolio, and that takes full advantage of their WebEx Cloud."

However, Cisco still has some work to do in several areas, Irwin told me.

Because these kinds of apps tend to be confined to small teams and extensive external collaborators (such as software developers), Cisco must show that Spark has mass-market appeal, he said. "What's the total addressable audience for Spark?"

In addition, Cisco has to clear up the confusion around its app strategy and whether that revolves around Jabber, Spark, or WebEx. Ultimately, Irwin said, he wants to know how these apps integrate and whether we should be looking at Spark as a replacement for Jabber.

Likewise, Cisco needs to elaborate on how the Spark Service will compete with Cisco's Hosted Collaboration Solution (HCS), how these announcements impact Cisco cloud partners, and whether it has is a strategy for Office 365 integration. (Watch this space. As the week unfolds at Collab Summit, Cisco may very well share more about adoption, partner strategies, and more, and I'll be here all week trying to get these answers.)

Dave Michels, Analyst, TalkingPointz
"Clearly Cisco is going all in on Spark -- this is a wake-up call to customers and channel partners. The distinctions between Cisco and Microsoft are widening."

While Microsoft is all about an email-centric model, Cisco is moving toward a workstream communications and collaboration (WCC) model, and "there is nothing more important in our space right now than WCC," Dave said. "ShoreTel, Mitel, Unify, Cisco, [Thinking Phone Networks], RingCentral, and others are racing toward this along with several other firms from outside our industry (Slack, HipChat, etc.) ... UC is basically done."

As the week unfolds, Dave said he will be aiming his antennae at APIs, seeking to better understand what Cisco is doing with Tropo.

For more analyst insight, jump to the next page: Zeus Kerravala, Brian Riggs, Brent Kelly

Continued from Page 1

Zeus Kerravala, Founder and Principal Analyst, ZK Research
When Cisco announced its first version of Spark last November, it faced a lot of competition from WCC providers. "While Cisco did have some interesting differentiators, such as security, it was hard to set it apart from the other 15+ vendors in the market."

But it's important to remember that Spark is built on Cisco's Collaboration Cloud. "Cisco was able to leverage the back-end cloud and create a number of other services. All of the announcements in aggregate also extend the Spark experience to any kind of use case," said Zeus, alluding to Spark's release in phone OS and room OS services, too. Now no matter how Spark is deployed -- as an app, a cloud service, on Spark-enabled phones, and in Spark-enabled rooms -- it will have the same look and feel.

In particular, Zeus said he finds Spark Hybrid Services of interest, since they will ease connectivity to existing Cisco systems such as Call Manager or HCS. "This means customers that have already spent money on Cisco VoIP can continue to use that existing platform and use Spark for messaging and meetings. For Cisco customers looking to deploy a WCC solution, Spark is a no-brainer now as it will work in their existing environments."

Brian Riggs, Analyst, Ovum Enterprise Group
"When it comes to these team collaboration apps there are two schools of thought," Brian said.

"The first is to keep the app clean and simple. Build in a minimal set of features and provide a maximum number of integrations with other SaaS-based apps. This is what Slack has done, and -- given adoption rates -- it clearly resonates with subscribers," he explained. "The other is to add a large number of features that do all sorts of things beyond messaging and task management. This is what Cisco is doing as it adds PBX functionality into Spark Call and PBX connectivity into Spark Hybrid. Unify and Interactive Intelligence have each done similar things."

The "everything plus the kitchen sink" approach could very well resonate with subscribers, Brian said. But, he added, a fear of his is that this could make the apps a bit too complicated.

Brent Kelly, President, KelCor
As did Zeus, Brent made note of Cisco's announcements around Spark OS for phones and video devices. "I'm not really sure what it means from a Cisco perspective," he said. "From a market perspective, I wonder why plain SIP phones and video systems are not enough. The phones and video devices have typically run Skinny or SIP," and Brent noted that he had trouble comprehending what exactly Spark OS adds. This is one area Brent said he will be trying to gain some clarity on this week, and we'll be sure to keep you updated about what we learn.

Speaking about Cisco's cloud and Hybrid Services news, "it seems that Cisco is sort of in a battle with itself," Brent said. "It has those great on-prem solutions, or HCS, which is based on UCM. But now, Spark calling is thrown in the mix" and Cisco has not done a good job of explaining why a customer would opt for a Spark calling capability rather than an HCS capability. He wants to know why Cisco has developed two unique cloud-based services (and I can't help but wonder this myself).

"This approach is opposite to what the rest of the market is doing, meaning that other companies are making their cloud and on-prem solutions have the same code base and capabilities so that companies can easily migrate between them. A prime example is ShoreTel. [Interactive Intelligence] is another. Mitel is not there, and with the acquisition it has done, it is a long way from this. Nevertheless, [a] migration path and clear direction is not evident from Cisco."

Also calling out the same sort of issue with Tropo and Spark APIs, as well as with Spark and WebEx, Brent said, "overall, color me confused at Cisco's strategy and product mix. It seems like the company is trying to transition to a Spark-Cloud model, but its legacy solutions are holding it back. ...This is exactly what killed Nortel and Avaya in the transition to IP -- they had so much legacy 'stuff' that they had to keep investing in it, and consequently, Cisco slipped in and became the market winner. In a like manner, Cisco has a legacy customer base to support, and perhaps it is vulnerable to a more nimble competitor with little legacy (i.e. Microsoft) to slip in and displace it as the market leader."

Sparking Our Imaginations
So are Cisco's latest Spark moves a wake-up call, as Dave suggests, or is Cisco potentially tolling its own death knell, as Brent wonders. We certainly can't answer that at the moment, but I do think it's fair to say that we could see some significant changes and much jockeying for position in the near future.

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