Cisco is looking to give physical meetings some of the love that virtual collaboration has been getting for years.
Workers have a plethora of choices for collaboration at a distance, often asynchronously, including Microsoft Skype, Slack, Cisco's own Spark, and good old email. But real-world meetings have lagged behind.
"Nobody has done anything to improve physical meetings," Zeus Kerravala, ZK Research founder and principal analyst, tells Light Reading. "The first ten or 15 minutes of any meeting is people waiting to set up the tech and checking to see who's called in on the bridge. Nobody ever has the right cables. Situations are always coming up."
First is Spark Board, a three-in-one hardware endpoint for meetings and conference rooms that hangs on the wall like a flatscreen TV and provides video conferencing, presentation display and shared whiteboarding. A 55" Spark Board will be available this month, with a 70" version coming later this year.
Second is a new version of the Spark app for mobile and desktop, providing a cloud collaboration suite.
Conventional conference rooms require a lot of hardware to permit remote collaboration, Jens Meggers, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco Collaboration, tells Light Reading.
"Go into a regular conference room, and you have projectors, screens, video systems, control systems on the desk, and microphones everywhere, sometimes hanging off the ceilings," Meggers says.
Spark Board replaces all that with a single, wall-mounted tablet. "Nothing on the table, no remote controls, microphones, or whiteboards," Meggers says.
Spark Board has a capacitive touch display, like a smartphone screen, for displaying presentations and for shared whiteboards, with 12 microphones for high-fidelity sound and lenses optimized for conference rooms and meeting rooms. Remote meeting participants can write on the whiteboard using their Spark mobile app. The app also automatically saves whiteboard documents. Meeting participants can do video calls and use the whiteboard simultaneously. And communications and information is encrypted for security, Cisco says.
"It's the best we can build at Cisco," Meggers says. "It can automatically focus on anyone in the room, and removes the need for a microphone in the meeting room."
Cisco says it's pricing the device for wide distribution -- $4,990, plus $199 per month per device for a Spark subscription, along with app subscriptions priced starting at $9.95 per user per month. "We're lowering the barrier to entry," Meggers says.
"The application is taking a Spark Board and putting it in your pocket," Richard Townhill, Cisco senior director of product management, says.
The Spark app provides messaging, voice collaboration and discussion, and works in conjunction with the Spark Board. The app and Spark Board detect each other when they come into proximity, so a collaboration session that starts on the app can show up on the Spark Board at the push of a button when a worker goes into a meeting room, Meggers says. The app integrates with Webex and shared calendars, including Exchange and Google Calendar. It's designed to help workers prepare for meetings ahead of time, participate in meetings and follow up afterward.
The cloud service behind Spark is located in 17 data centers worldwide, with 68 media ingress nodes for audio and video to ensure sub-100millisecond latency for voice and video calls, Meggers says.
Cisco has been investing significantly in collaboration in recent years, making several acquisitions. It acquired Collaborate.com in 2013, which provided a cloud-based team collaboration platform for messaging, document sharing and task management; Assemblage in 2014 for video conferencing and collaboration; API specialist Tropo and Acano for scalability and interoperability in 2015; and Synata and Worklife last year. Synata improved search and encryption, while Worklife provided software to improve meeting productivity. (See Cisco to Acquire Acano for Collaboration, Cisco Acquires WebRTC Smarts, and Cisco to Acquire API Specialist Tropo.)
But Cisco's history in collaboration goes back further, since the company pioneered IP telephony, Heavy Reading analyst Sandra O'Boyle tells Light Reading. "They're very good at video, and they understand IP telephony and conferencing," she says.
Analyst Kerravala sees demand for the Spark Board and collaboration suite.
"I like what they're doing," Kerravala says. "The physical meeting space has been underserved."
The Spark Board and application will step up competition with Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT), which recently introduced the Surface Hub, a competitive device priced higher, starting at $8,999. "The physical meeting space will be the next wave of battles between Cisco and Microsoft," Kerravala says. "We'll see who can bring the physical and virtual together in one place."
The low price point could make the Spark Board affordable for unequipped meeting rooms and huddle spaces, broadening the potential market for remote collaboration, says Gartner analyst Adam Preset.
Spark will also attract enterprises looking to integrate meeting room endpoints with their other collaboration apps. The desire to reduce siloed solutions will make Spark Board attractive to Cisco shops, just as Microsoft Surface Hubs appeal to Microsoft enterprises. And it's why Google created the Jamboard cloud whiteboard, Preset said.
The Spark Board could be a step on the expansion of Cisco's Internet of Things initiatives, Kerravala says. Cisco has a "digital ceiling" initiative in collaboration with Ericsson, to control lighting, air, physical security and other networks with a single IP network. Spark Board could complement digital ceiling, Kerravala says. "Cisco could be the control point for everything in the meeting room," he says.
— Mitch Wagner, , Editor, Light Reading Enterprise Cloud