Sparking Thoughts on Cisco Spark

If you're a regular No Jitter reader or UC watcher, you've no doubt read the news and analysis of Cisco's immersive group collaboration entry, Spark Board, and improved user experience -- important enough of a development to have had CEO Chuck Robbins on hand at the formal unveiling. Here's what stood out to me about the announcements, as well as my thoughts on the direction Cisco needs to take moving forward.

Looking Closer at Spark Board
The first major introduction was the new Cisco Spark Board, or as one wag referred to it the new "iBoard from Cisco." As you can see in the picture below, the Spark Board resembles a huge iPad (available in both 55-inch and 70-inch versions). The resemblance is more than superficial as the Spark Board has a single physical home button, a sleek design and a similar black and aluminum look. Clearly, the Cisco-Apple partnership is more than just in core technology. The Spark Board is a new collaboration platform with video suitable for smaller meeting room spaces. It incorporates capacitive touch with "smart board" capabilities that enable it to be used as a collaboration device, even when no communications are involved. The screen is 4K, optimized to the near field viewing experience for when a user is actually interacting with touch.

portable
Cisco Spark Board

When communications commence, the Spark Board has an 86 degree 4K camera at 60 FPS, a 12-microphone array, beam shaping for audio clarity, and good speakers. The result is that the only connection required is power if Wi-Fi is used (there is a physical Ethernet connector as well).

One key element of the design is the elimination of the tabletop cable tangle that is usually required for sharing a screen. In the Spark Board room, the user connects to the Spark cloud with an app in their device (PC, tablet, or smartphone) and the content is pushed to the cloud and then back down to the Spark Board. This eliminates the need for a cable between the devices and the Spark Board or peering technologies like Intel Ignite. While Cisco places great emphasis on the wire-free aspect of the product, the Spark Board does still have an HDMI input port, suggesting that the Spark team is not quite ready to fully follow Apple's lead (eliminating the headphone jack on the iPhone 7). The clear path for using the Spark Board is cloud-based sharing -- for screens, content, and white boarding. Through the use of ultrasonic wireless pairing technology, users are automatically recognized when they walk in the room.

Focusing on the User
The second major announcement was around the Spark user experience. The Spark team has focused on delivering a common user experience across a range of devices and screen sizes, unveiling a common look and feel regardless of whether you are using the Spark Board or Spark on your mobile device. During all the launch event sessions, there was an emphasis on the "Big Green Button" as the way to join or start real-time media in a meeting. Clearly, Cisco sees the control and commonality they can build with a common experience and has focused on that versus the ecosystem of competitors like Microsoft. The key message is simplicity. While there was not sufficient time or volume of use for me to comment in detail, it appears on first look that Spark is becoming easier to use and has the common feel for which Cisco is striving.

Securing the Experience
A third area to note is Cisco's use of security in how media is shared in the cloud. Spark is designed to use the cloud both as a repository as well as the transit for a wide range of content. For example, a whiteboard event is a string of data, each defining an action (a line or something else) on the common whiteboard. Each action is encrypted by the originating endpoint and sent encrypted through the cloud to storage and the other endpoints. The result is that security is applied end to end, not just in transit or while at rest. The security is tied into the group paradigm, so only members of a group get the keys to decrypt that group content -- a neat solution to a major cloud problem.

Interfacing with Interfaces
The fourth area I found interesting was the extensibility and applications interfaces. Over the last year, the integrations and SDKs for Spark have continued to improve, but the key takeaway from the launch event was a talk I attended by Jose De Castro, Cisco Tropo CTO. He talked extensively about embedded communications. Essentially, he sees enabling developers to embed Spark-based contextual communications into applications as the next big thing for Spark developers. I see this new world of CPaaS 2.0 as a bold frontier for the industry as communications moves from the PSTN/SMS/phone to being natively included within the application experience. This was confirmed the day after the Cisco event when Vidyo announced their new Vidyo.io CPaaS solution. While Cisco has yet to announce a consumption pricing model (as compared to a user license model), it is clear that Cisco is moving in that direction.

Moving Forward
With this new set of Spark announcements, Cisco is ratcheting the bar ever higher on the next-generation integrated communications and collaboration environment. However, one concern came out of the sessions ... the price. For example, a 70-inch Spark Board carries a $10,000 list price, a mandatory support charge of 15-20% and a monthly Spark cloud connect fee of $200 ($169 if purchased annually). Even with a 20% discount, the five year TCO of a Spark Board, including a $1000 install, is over $18,000. While that sounds cheap compared to a $300,000 telepresence room, it appears to be much higher than other options such as the Skype for Business Rooms or some of the new Vidyo offers.

Further analysis is clearly required to understand both the capabilities, cost, and competitive value of Spark with these announcements. Tune in to the UCStrategies podcast next week for more info. And, of course, at Enterprise Connect Orlando coming up at the end of March, join Brent Kelly and myself for the always popular Cisco versus Microsoft session. This year's session, "Titans Clash on New Terrain?" will focus on the fast-changing cloud and collaboration tools and team capabilities of the platforms.

Learn more about communications and collaboration trends and technologies at Enterprise Connect 2017, March 27 to 30, in Orlando, Fla. Register now using the code NOJITTER to receive $300 off an Entire Event pass or a free Expo Plus pass.