Cisco Systems a year ago introduced Project Squared, an initiative designed to bring consumer-like ease to enterprise-class collaboration and communications.
It was renamed Spark in March and introduced as a collaboration application that made it easier for users to schedule, manage and attend video conferences or other online meetings. Now Cisco officials want to evolve Spark from a business messaging tool to a platform that leverages the cloud.
At the company’s annual Collaboration Summit Dec. 8 in San Francisco, Cisco executives introduced new collaboration services—including messaging, meeting and calling—that will be available through the public cloud, and services that will enable customers to access these services via their Cisco phones and video conferencing systems.
At the same time, the company is pushing to grow a developer community around Spark to drive the creation of apps that can run on the platform.
The problem until now has been that the three primary ways to communicate over the Internet—unified communications (UC), video conferencing and Web conferencing—have developed independently of each other, with only the Web conferencing category being created during the cloud era. Vendors have made moves to make these technologies work together, but they still are three separate communication methods, according to Rowan Trollope, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco’s Internet of Things (IoT) and Collaboration Technology Group.
“We needed to completely redesign these three things … to make them one designated experience,” Trollope said during a Webcast event from the summit.
CEO Chuck Robbins said collaboration has become a priority among businesses that has grown beyond simply being a way of improving worker productivity.
“They now see it as a business tool,” Robbins said. “It’s just part of the way they think about their business.”
The key for Cisco has been to design a way to make its collaboration tools easy to use, open and interoperable with products from Cisco and others, whether in the cloud or on-premises, he said. It needs to be easy and intuitive to use.
“It needs to feel like a phone call,” the CEO said.
At the event, Trollope and other executives introduced an array of new capabilities for the Spark platform, including collaboration-as-a-service, hybrid services that enable on-premises equipment to use Spark through the cloud, and a developer portal.
The collaboration-as-a-service aspect is delivered to customers through Cisco’s collaboration cloud. Through a single open platform, Cisco is offering one-on-one meetings, chat, content sharing, video, audio and Web conferences, and video and voice calls, and the ability to seamlessly move between modes without missing anything. Users through a single click can turn a phone call into a video meeting, and a swipe lets them move a video call from a room system to a mobile device. Users can take advantage of everything from provisioning to analytics to user controls. The Spark service doesn’t include a public switched telephone network (PSTN), which users will still get via their service providers.
For businesses already using Cisco collaboration products, Spark Hybrid Services enables these phones and other systems to connect to the Spark services through the cloud. The services can do tasks, such as linking on-premises calendar servers to the cloud, and the act of placing a call automatically creates a meeting in the Spark room that participants can share.
Cisco Spark Evolves From Collaboration Product to Platform
In addition, Cisco, with its Spark for Developers, is including open APIs that programmers can leverage to create their own apps to run on the Spark platform.
Spark for Developers and some Spark services are available now. Complete Spark services will be available in the United States in early 2016 and will roll out to other countries throughout the year and into 2017. Spark Hybrid Services will be released in 21 countries in the first quarter of 2016.
The Spark platform comes as businesses continue to migrate toward software- and cloud-based collaboration offerings to address such trends as increasingly mobile workforces, bring-your-own-device (BYOD) and the cloud. Established players like Cisco and Microsoft are moving to make their offerings more cloud-enabled, while a growing number of smaller vendors—such as 8×8, RingCentral and, on the video conferencing side, Vidyo and Blue Jeans Network—are looking to gain traction through their software- and cloud-only products. There also is a move toward a single common platform for both on-premises and cloud communications offerings, such as ShoreTel’s Connect offering.
Analysts with IHS in September said that worldwide revenue for business cloud voice-over-IP (VOIP) and UC reached $4.2 billion in the first half of 2015 and could hit $15 billion for the full year in 2019.
Trollope has been in charge of Cisco’s collaboration efforts for the past three years. Over the past 12 months, the company has refreshed its entire endpoint lineup and reduced the number of endpoints from 65 to 17, while growing revenue for four consecutive quarters, including by 17 percent in the last quarter. Cisco in August announced a partnership with Apple in which the companies will make their products work better together, and has bought a number of companies in the space, including Tropo and, more recently, Acano.