By Corey Moss

Cisco, one of the numerous players now in unified communications and collaboration, (UCC) has leapt into a grand pool of technology that certain companies have leveraged to great advantage, and now they’ve decided it’s their turn. What is it you ask? As of January 24th, Cisco, with their Spark product, has joined the ranks of those who have offered a solution first introduced so many years ago by SMART Technologies.

I received an e-mail to witness a Cisco event on January 24th (I had seen on social media where people were receiving a box with a black stylus in it  – hint, hint) and sent the reply to see the launch event online. The invite stated:

Join Chuck Robbins, CEO and Rowan Trollope, SVP & GM, Internet of Things (IoT) and Applications Division online as they share what we’re doing to help people work better together.

Unfortunately I was not able to watch the event on that day, however I did watch the recorded webcast. The webcast began with Chuck Robbins’ introductory discussion on connecting the creative minds and unleashing innovation, and of course collaboration and communication. He talked about his usage of Cisco Spark and the effect it has had on his daily life. He also mentioned the product to be introduced as part of what will be a long pipeline of success in 2017. And finally, a beautiful, simple user experience. Robbins then introduced the person responsible for the creation of this new product, Rowan Trollope, SVP & GM – Internet of Things (IoT) and Applications Division.

Chuck Robbins, CEO (left) and Rowan Trollope, SVP & GM – IoT and Applications Division

Trollope took the stage to talk about something that would obviously appeal to all in the business world – meetings. His first conversation (after telling about how the Golden Gate Bridge inspired the Cisco logo and how it was originally known as “the bridge that can’t be built”) detailed the challenge and impossible task that has been faced in the collaboration business, where despite the amazing success in terms of videoconferencing and meeting room technologies, videoconferencing products are still in less than 5% of the rooms worldwide – a statistic that is still somewhat mystifying in this day and age. The other 95%, as Trollope claimed, are a “mishmash” of old technologies – meeting rooms stuck in the past.

He then proclaimed how this has become “The Holy Grail” in terms of figuring out a way to do a better job and make a product that will transform all of those rooms and all of that old technology. Trollope stated that Cisco has tried before and not succeeded, and also claimed how no one else has either – right pricing, right features, etc. Apparently it seems those numbers speak louder than words, however the words here present the challenge as well.

Trollope went on to discuss a project to build that solution which began three years ago, in which he then revealed a “wheelbarrow of old technologies” that were removed from client sites – an interesting statement, mirroring something I saw at InfoComm 2014 at that interactive whiteboard originator company’s product launch of a “museum of productivity” housing a repository of old outdated business tools. He wheeled it toward the audience and dumped it on the stage. In the pile, he pulled out the rats nest of cables, and mentioned them as in trying to figure out what to plug in where. He turned over the TV, with no remote to be found to turn it on or switch sources (and evidently no system in the room I would guess). Yes, I have seen other Cisco product launches (including Spark itself) and will admit that Rowan Trollope is a true showman.

And then, Trollope summed up those meeting rooms stuck in the past with old technology in one word – Pain. 95% of the rooms worldwide sitting in that painful segment of the collaboration space. Sounds more like agony the way it’s put here, though being in the industry as long as I have I guess I could put in two cents on that. Videoconferencing as he claims is pretty easy to use now, which I’ll of course second seeing all that I have at industry meetings and trade shows, along with the technologies that I use. Real pain was actually in setting up and starting meetings with legacy videoconferencing equipment (you can of course include Cisco/Tandberg here) which still exists to this day in so many meeting rooms. Why? Let’s just say someone’s probably not getting the job done here.

His following statement describes a product that is complete, does everything you need and is incredibly easy to use, which doesn’t exist to this day – but does now. That product is an interactive whiteboard/wireless presentation display with built-in videoconferencing, designed to go into every meeting room in the world (I’ll assume that 95%). That product is Spark Board.



Then there was of course a grand audiovisual presentation to introduce the product and Trollope went on to discuss the device specs, features and more. Then – something that sounds like a beeper goes off in the room and Trollope stops and has a fun moment with that. Honestly, if there’s anyone I have ever seen deliver a presentation with the ability to just deliver – it’s Rowan Trollope.  He uses such words like magic better than anyone I have ever seen.

Now while exciting launch presentations are all well and good (go ahead and watch it if you can), let’s get to the point here – just what is Spark Board? More importantly, why is this the answer to everyone’s pain and ultimately, prayers? Although while considering that, another question comes to mind in that has the enterprise really been looking for such a device to save the day?

Cisco Spark Board is described as a 3-in-one touch-based collaboration device. You can share presentations, documents and whiteboard drawings in, as the website marketing term denotes “stunning” 4K UHD. You can draw on the board with your finger, or use a stylus. Yes I know, continue.

You can save the contents to your Cisco Spark space. Now we’re getting somewhere as the device integrates with Cisco’s Spark platform (naturally).  You can start an HD video or voice call as soon as you walk into the room, with, as the website states “best-in-class” conferencing (and why not since Cisco is known for that). It’s 55″, good enough for a small group to work with, and of course the huddle space atmosphere comes to mind here. It works with the iPhone and the Spark app.

In short, Cisco states that the Spark Board replaces all of the meeting rooms’ presentation and video room screens, whiteboards, phones, cameras, microphones and, as what looks like one of the biggest details – all of those cables.

Here’s the full overview for the Cisco Spark Board 55 to find out more. The price is $4,990, and there’s a monthly subscription fee of $199, which covers the cloud service, help desk, and software upgrades. Cisco will reportedly make a 70-inch version of the board, available later this year.

Now while Rowan Trollope brought the magic and made Spark fly in late 2015, he hopes to repeat that magic in 2017 with the launch of a new Spark product which he and Cisco truly believe will revolutionize the market. Now while that could possibly be so, it’s getting a little tough these days to sort through all of these types of solutions to figure out what’s best feature and price-wise for any given client’s situation, which is of course the responsibility of the integrator. I know that people will undeniably call it another smart board because that’s what they call everything that’s interactive no matter what it features or what it’s capable of. That is until it’s entered the market and proven itself to be otherwise, which certain manufacturers have achieved – especially InFocus with its array of leading interactive display solutions. Microsoft showed strength with the Surface Hub where you go by the numbers in 2016, and it’s no doubt they will also have to take on Google and the Jamboard.

As for Cisco, it’s a start, but there will be a road they have to drive to convince the business public that it’s the answer to that pain, and not just another interactive white board thrown into the mix, though it has a price point with features that could possibly make a difference. But that’s of course to be seen.