Big Step for Spark, But Can This Dog Hunt?
Cisco's Spark platform announcements are less about the technology particulars and more about whether it can get users to adopt a new way of working.
With the well-covered Spark platform news coming from Cisco at its annual Collaboration Summit in San Francisco this week, the big questions for me center not on the particulars of the enhancements, but rather on Cisco's (or anyone else's) ability to get organizations to adopt the new model of workstream communications and collaboration (WCC) tools.
As I look at the evolving WCC market, I see three potential players: Cisco, Microsoft, and everybody else. The latter category we might further divide between established UC&C vendors like IBM, Interactive Intelligence, and Unify that have launched WCC offerings, and startups, among which Slack certainly appears to be leading the way. All of these vendors face the same daunting challenge of getting users who engage in collaborative projects to change the way they work.
Microsoft's Fighting Chance
In one of yesterday's No Jitter posts on the Spark announcements, Dave Michels, analyst with TalkingPointz, noted that "Microsoft is all about an email-centric model." I don't see that to be the case.
Sure, you could say that of the enterprise email space Microsoft dominates with Exchange, but I don't think Microsoft feels that the sun rises and sets on email. Certainly Cisco (and IBM and Unify) moved more quickly into the WCC space, but Microsoft has all the tools it needs to play in this game: SharePoint, OneDrive, and the Groups function in Skype for Business -- and the Skype for Business UC&C tools are integrated with all of those. What Microsoft hasn't done (for whatever reason) is package and present all of these elements as a full WCC platform.
With its long legacy of providing enterprise productivity tools, I would still give Microsoft the inside chance on being able to lead customers toward this new way of doing collaborative work despite its WCC product line being a jumbled grab bag at the moment. I don't think Microsoft is stumbling in WCC because of an undying loyalty to email, but rather is simply tied up in too many other priorities with its Skype integration, cloud initiatives, and the lingering hangover of Nokia/Windows Phone debacle.
Despite its hardware legacy of switches, routers, and IP phones, Cisco could craft a reasonable story to lead its customers to Spark by way of WebEx. Cisco was one of the first UC vendors to recognize that the core UC functions of voice, video, text, and email were becoming "old news," and has been downplaying the UC angle and shifting the focus toward collaboration for some time now. From a marketing standpoint, however, Cisco may have been smarter to position WCC as the next major enhancement to WebEx rather than creating a whole new name... first with Project Squared and then with Spark.
Given the nature of the product, it will be a real stretch for Cisco to move from the hardware to the software and productivity space and challenge Microsoft at its own game. If I were a Cisco executive, I'd be very concerned about the channel's ability to make the leap into an entirely different type of business, with a different buyer and a different value proposition.
That said, I would put the traditional UC&C providers that have or are planning WCC offerings at an even greater disadvantage than Cisco. These include Interactive Intelligence, Mitel, RingCentral, ShoreTel, Thinking Phone Networks, and Unify.
Slack and Its Startup Compatriots
If Microsoft continues to stumble around WCC, I think it will create a major opportunity for Slack and the other startups. Ovum Enterprise analyst Brain Riggs, who has done a great job tracking this space, noted in yesterday's No Jitter coverage that Slack seems to epitomize the WCC model that seeks 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." Indeed, the one thing that did strike me about the Cisco demo its complexity.
By the same token, I don't hold to the idea that enterprise tools can (or should) be as simple as making Facebook posts from an iPhone. The things we are trying to do in an enterprise setting are just more complicated, so the idea of a "no manual" edict for a complex enterprise tool is simply unrealistic.
Still, I come back to the core question, which is which vendor (if any) can get enterprise users who need to manage collaborative projects to move away from email (a clearly imperfect tool) to this entirely new way of doing things. I have been interested in these WCC offerings since they first appeared, seeing them as a way in which UC&C vendors could finally have an impact on the enterprise mobility market.
WCC & the Mobile UC Client
As I have pointed out countless times, and just earlier this week in my No Jitter post "Sometimes Pictures Do Lie," the UC&C vendors' mobile offerings (like Cisco Jabber, Skype for Business Mobile, Unify OpenScape Mobile, and so on) have been an irrelevant sideshow that has attracted almost zero user adoption. That's because these mobile clients essentially mimic native smartphone functions and yet require a user to open a separate client just to make business calls. Users have seen no value in what the mobile clients have had to offer, and so have chosen to stick with the interfaces with which they are most comfortable.
Were these WCC platforms to be successful in shifting users to this new way of working, this would become the mobile app they would use most of the time for work. In essence, everything they'd be doing would be housed in the WCC platform, and if they could call and text and video out of that same app, they would absolutely need it on their mobiles.
Dave is right when he says "there is nothing more important in our space right now than WCC," but that is more a reflection of the technology's potential rather than of today's reality. We are right to be excited by the prospects and the possibility of a whole new form of collaborative work tool, but that success hinges on change -- and a big change at that. Without a doubt we are getting the technology, but the real battle will be in winning over the users.