Sparking Conversations

by Dave Michels

Cisco’s Spark service overlaps with the company’s UC and TelePresence solutions. For example, all three solutions support video conferencing. Last June at CiscoLive, the company provided a glimpse of how Spark will transition from overlap to glue.

In his keynote Rowan Trollope previewed two upcoming integrations with Spark. Both will make Spark significantly more attractive to existing customers of Cisco Collaboration.

Cisco Spark is a Workstream Communications and Collaboration (WCC) application that ties together real-time and asynchronous modes of communication along with contextual content and conversation history. WCC as a category has the potential to change the way we work, communicate, and collaborate. I expect it to cause significant disruption to the UC industry.

For additional information on WCC, see these posts:

Making Enterprise Comms More Than Unified.
WCC Makes Communications Strategic Again
Also, this white paper:
Workstream Communications and Collaboration

Rowan’s keynotes always provide context – tech becomes more useful when it solves relatable problems.

The first demonstration was the dreaded expense report challenge – accounting has some questions. This call is usually pretty short (and sometimes the last call), and frequently ends with “come see me.” Lots of collaboration solutions now make it easier to share content, but there’s still several steps involved.

It was a before and after demo.

The before was just a phone call. The after started with a redial, but this time Rowan shared his desktop display. Spark automatically created a meeting from the call. Presumably, Spark resolved the number dialed to the userID and created a “zero-touch” meeting in Spark. Now that a meeting is established, either party can share thier screen with one-touch sharing.



Real-time communications is a core component of WCC, but exactly how falls into the details. Most WCC solutions use P2P WebRTC/video leaving PSTN access for some other app. A tight integration with CUCM will make Spark attractive to a huge installed base of telephony users.

The second demo involved Telepresence SX10 room systems. The pain point this time had to do with setting up video calls (dangerous example for Cisco). Rowan asked for a volunteer from the audience that was both Telepresence and Spark savvy (evidently not hard to find at CiscoLive). Amy was selected, and she and Rowan agreed that the SX10’s remote control and the address of Rowan’s SX10 should be all that’s needed to connect the two SX10s. She was then ushered into a game-show, sound-proof fishbowl to set up the call.  

Rowan said “if you have any problems call me on Spark” establishing Spark as the easier way to communicate.  As he secured her inside the glass cube, he snagged the remote and address when she wasn’t looking.

rowanstealingWithout these pieces Amy predictably failed with the TelePresence call, so she called Rowan on Spark as instructed. Ta-da, by mysterious accident she connected the two SX10s.


What exactly occurred is not clear. Somehow, Amy’s SX10 paired with her smartphone and established her requested meeting. The SX10s do support ultrasonic pairing, but the user must accept it. Either the rules of decorum are different with pre-released software (but the Spark app on Amy’s phone was presumably GA ) or Amy wasn’t randomly selected. I assume that the glass booth was necessary to block accidental pairing as there were likely hundreds of Spark enabled smartphones in the auditorium.   

In the first demo Cisco telephony hardware caused Spark to seamlessly establish a meeting in Spark. In the second demo a Spark conversation seamlessly established a meeting on Cisco TelePresence hardware. These were well executed Apple-like demos harking back to Rowan’s message at the 2013 Collaboration Summit re “delighting the customer” with integrated hardware and software. 

Both demonstrations were powerful examples of how Spark will integrate with the existing Cisco Collaboration base. (Or, possibly how Spark will frustrate everyone with all these unintended meetings).

There’s literally no public information available on what to expect or when. Did the TelePresence connection use SIP? Did it use Spark’s WebRTC stack? Is this a cloud or premises capability? Which is more secure TelePresence (on prem) or Spark (in cloud)? TelePresence already integrates with WebEX, is this a new integration or is WebEX providing the gateway? Will this work equally as well with Cisco CUCM onsite vs. HCS? What about hybrid deployments? Will this Spark functionality be available at the free level? Who knows! 

The best way to describe Spark to the unfamiliar is a ‘Slack-like application.” Slack has strong momentum, and is proving to be very valuable as a collaborative tool. However, it has very limited real-time capabilities. Although Slack will get WebRTC video, don’t hold your breath for PSTN or actual telephones. Slack could potentially integrate with existing phone systems, but I don’t expect that anytime soon either.

Cisco’s hold card in this game is a huge, global installed base of hardware -and it appears the company is going to bet big.

Clearly Spark won’t remain a standalone app. Spark appears positioned to take-on Slack, Skype, and Skype4B with an all encompassing communications, collaboration, and workflow solution.

Perhaps we will learn more this December at the Cisco Collaboration Summit.