Cisco Spark, Slack ignite fledgling team messaging market

by Dave Michels

One topic I regularly get asked about is Cisco Spark. Specifically, is anyone using Cisco Spark? In a recent Network World interview, Rowan Trollope, Cisco’s head of collaboration, finally provided a clue. He said the messaging application has more than 1 million paid users. That number is more than I expected, but it’s still small.

In cloud services, the key measure is monthly or daily active users, which is normally less than the number of subscribers. To my knowledge, this is the first time Cisco has shared any adoption numbers publicly regarding Spark. It will raise questions about Spark’s likelihood of success.

Cisco launched Spark in March 2015. It was unveiled a few months earlier as Project Squared, a team messaging service created by the Cisco Collaboration unit. Spark is often compared to applications such as Slack, Unify Circuit, Atlassian HipChat, Redbooth and RingCentral Glip in the ever-evolving team messaging market.

Team messaging services, offering a fresh take on enterprise collaboration, create containers for shared conversations and content. It’s effectively the next generation of instant messaging. The key differences are persistent group conversations, search and discovery capabilities, content repositories, enterprise administration tools, and often the ability to integrate with other business applications.

Most providers keep adoption details to themselves. We know the team messaging market is generally growing, but we don’t know the conversion rates from free trials, or if adoption rates are similar across regions. These emerging services have quite a few unknowns.

Slack: A happy accident

The poster child for team messaging services is Slack, which gets credit for identifying this unmet market. Last May, Slack reported its user base grew to over 3 million daily active users, with 930,000 paid accounts. Reportedly, Cisco’s messaging application has more than 1 million paid users.

Slack was a bit of an accident. The company actually created what became Slack as an internal collaboration tool to overcome distances between its teams while developing a totally separate application. When the other project failed, the company pivoted and relaunched as a cloud-delivered, collaboration service.

Slack became the first enterprise-oriented startup to reach unicorn status, with a billion-dollar valuation — and did so in less than two years. Slack’s revenue and adoption growth are impressive, and it has attracted many others to create similar services.

Could Spark unify the Cisco Collaboration ecosystem?

Cisco appears to be investing heavily in Spark. Certainly, Cisco Collaboration has its share of failed products, including WebEx Social, a similar but unrelated product the company discontinued in 2014.

It seems unlikely Cisco Spark will fail or be discontinued any time soon. Spark is central to a broad vision that intersects with every Cisco Collaboration product. Comparing Cisco Spark to Slack or other team messaging services fails to capture the breadth of the platform.

Here are seven reasons why Cisco Spark is likely to become a force within enterprise communications:

  1. Cloud pivot. Most unified communications premises-based vendors discovered the hard way that simply moving a product to an Opex modelis not a cloud strategy. The issues are broad, but scalability and security are big ones. Modern cloud services need to be designed for millions of users. As a new cloud-native platform, Cisco Spark offers workstream messaging, unified communications as a service (UCaaS) and an aggressive roadmap.
  2. Convergence. Cisco Spark aims to unite the Cisco Collaboration ecosystem, including WebEx, TelePresence and Unified Computing System. Spark offers simple UCaaS features, and advanced features are available via a hybrid model to its other UC services. Existing Cisco phones and room systems can be connected to Spark as endpoints. The Cisco Spark user base could conceivably comprise the Collaboration unit’s entire installed base with UC, video and conferencing. Note: In May, Cisco said WebEx had over 15 million users.
  3. Partnerships. It’s not just Cisco and its channel partners selling Spark, but partners, too. Box, a Cisco Spark partner, cited its partnership with IBM helped it close eight six-figure deals last quarter. IBM and Cisco recentlyunveiled a partnership, which should help boost Spark’s collaboration capabilities and expose IBM customers to WebEx and Spark. Cisco Collaboration also has a partnership with Apple.
  4. Spark development. Cisco Spark has already expanded from workstream messaging into a platform play with rich APIs for development, stemming from Cisco’s acquisition of Tropo. Spark was also bolstered with a cloud-delivered data encryption model, at least partially related to its acquisition of Synata. Cisco also announced a $150 million development fund last spring to stimulate an ecosystem.
  5. Cisco sales machine. While the viability of Cisco technology is subject to debate, few question Cisco’s ability to sell it — this includes both direct sales and indirect channels. Cisco Spark, although hosted by Cisco, leans on its channel for sales. Paid plans are sold through channel partners, and the UCaaS element requires partner-provided network services.
  6. Viral adoption. This has more to do with the nature of workstream messaging than Cisco Spark specifically, but these types of applications often experience viral adoption. As with other communications technologies, Spark becomes more powerful as its user base grows. Team messaging platforms benefit from peer pressure, as teams discover the collaboration benefits that arise from the new tools.
  7. Growth of workstream messaging. The team messaging market is new and the services are immature. Although some adoption rates are promising, overall, enterprise adoption is still very low. In other words, the team messaging market is set to grow. More competitors are still coming, but Cisco is in a good position with its own platform — a head start — and adjacent products.

How the vendor landscape shakes out is anyone’s guess. However,Cisco Spark seems likely to be in it. Today, Cisco Spark is immature. Its UCaaS, software developer kits and APIs are very limited. Yet, the service is maturing quickly.

Cisco Spark already does things that other services can’t. For example, it can detect a phone call between colleagues and passively set up one-click desktop sharing. Spark can automatically detect a user in a conference room and enable that user’s smartphone to become a video-room controller. Spark stores and protects customer data from prying eyes under a more secure model than other cloud services.

These features reflect the product today. Cisco is improving Spark rapidly. Updates are applied frequently — even daily via its internal DevOps environment. Cisco is also testing a virtual assistant service in Spark. And the UCaaS product, in general, is expected to become more robust with integrated services.

Cisco has been shy about sharing adoption numbers, likely because it doubts the current figures are indicative of the future.