Cisco’s iPhone Moment

by Dave Michels

The iPhone changed the world, and every company wants its products to be the next iPhone.

Unfortunately, products with the disruptive force of the iPhone are inherently rare in part because there are few products with such mass, global appeal.

There’s also the issue that blockbuster products are hard to spot. Great companies are known to kill lab projects only to find they reprise later as competitive forces. For months after its launch, many experts thought even the iPhone was doomed.

Cisco’s new Spark Board is not an iPhone. It is however, designed to be as disruptive to enterprise communications as the iPhone was to cellular.

There’s nothing wrong when a company tries to imitate one of the most successful product launches in my lifetime. Collaboration unit leader Rowan Trollope has been introducing Apple-esque practices since his arrival in 2012, but this week’s launch of Spark Board was his Pièce De Résistance. Spark board

The launch took place yesterday in a packed auditorium in San Francisco. It was Rowan’s show, so CEO Chuck Robbins opened and introduced Rowan. Here are some of the Applish similarities:

  • Design: Apple has always put heavy emphasis on design from icons of smiling computers to sleek physical materials and feel. Cisco has emphasized design on its Spark Board with careful attention to detail. From the weight and feel of the stylus to the back, or “second front” of the unit. The software too is designed to be approachable and intuitive.
  • Complete Solution: Apple differentiates its devices by tightly integrating hardware and software into a seamless experience. The Spark Board is more software than hardware. Its embedded code is designed exclusively for use with the Cisco Spark service. The board will seamlessly detect and interoperate with Spark’s desktop and mobile clients.
  • 3 in 1: When Jobs launched the iPhone he initially positioned it as three products: a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone, and a breakthrough Internet communications device. Then Jobs did an explanatory, live demo of each product. When Trollope launched the Spark Board he said it was three products: a wireless presentation display, a digital whiteboard, and a next generation video conferencing system. He then did a Jobs-like explanatory, live demo of each product.
  • A Platform: Key to iPhone’s ongoing success is its ecosystem of apps. Cisco has created strong APIs and SDKs while simultaneously seeding and nurturing a Spark ecosystem of developers and applications. Spark even has an AppStore.
  • Aimed at the Masses: Only executives bought “smartphones” before the iPhone. But, the iPhone was so intuitive and easy to use that smartphones became consumer products. The entire video conferencing industry has conquered something like 5-10 percent of the conference rooms out there. Cisco is after the mass market with Spark Board. Though still expensive (today) it is relatively inexpensive.
  • Disruptive Potential: Apple turned the cellular industry upside down with direct sales to consumers. The manufacturers were selling phones to carriers. The carriers wanted products that were easy on the network and easy to support. Nothing to lose is why disruption usually comes from industry outsiders, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Cisco appears to be willing to disrupt its own industry (pricing and channels).  Spark Board has the potential to be sold through low cost online retailers.
  • Something New: New product categories are inherently risky. Cisco is attempting to create a new category of a comprehensive collaboration service that includes endpoints and services that spans across multiple forms of conversation. The Apple lesson here is to combine what is known of customers’ needs with a vision of what’s possible. On stage and in breakouts, Cisco’s demos were all about solutions to today’s problems. Cisco isn’t selling Spark on features, but rather its ability to get things done. 

Final Thoughts

Will the Spark Board be the next iPhone? Of course not. It’s a fine product, but it’s not likely to cross into a consumer play. Conceptually it’s not even unique. The Spark Board is the next generation of a digital whiteboard.  But it may crack the code to get into that 90 percent. 

One will inevitably compare Spark Board to Microsoft’s Surface Hub, but the products are different. The Surface Hub has only been available for a year, but it’s not a new product. It was demonstrated in a pre-release form during the Enterprise Connect 2013 keynote. It was designed as an adjunct to premises-based Lync deployments (before Office 365). It is similar to the 2013 Lync Room System with upgraded compute and display capabilities. It is the first product to come from Microsoft’s 2012 acquisition of Perceptive Pixel.

The Spark Board is totally new – 4k camera and built for the cloud. 

Cisco got a lot right on the Spark Board, but it is not perfect. I will be writing more about its strengths and flaws separately. But, since it’s not just hardware, the product will indeed improve over time.

  • Spark Board is a new product for a new cloud-based service that we still struggle to describe.
  • The Spark Board is just one of many (existing and planned) supported Spark endpoints.
  • Spark Board is not the story, Spark is.
  • The Spark Board is literally and figuratively a conversation starter.

Spark Board Keynote Launch