Cisco Collaboration Update: Spark, Meraki Voice, Acano, UC in the Cloud? What to make of it all?

Cisco has been going full steam ahead in the Collaboration market lately.  It started late last year by making big news with the purchase of UK’s Acano, which was lead by former Cisco folks and sold for 700 Million.  Combine this with Rowan Trollope’s complete redo and streamlining of the video product line; taking the overall product set to fewer skus, but much higher quality and interoperability..  Speaking of Trollope, what a start he has had at Cisco.  Mr. Trollope has been the leader of the Collaboration unit for just over 3 years now.  Previously, he held executive and engineering roles at Symantec, where he holds 7 patents in security and operating systems.  Mr. Trollope codes to this day and requires the same of all of his engineering leads.  Guy is legit.  Since he has been at Cisco, as mentioned, he completely overhauled the video product line which resulted in eight Red Dot design awards.  The new product line resulted in a 73% decrease in order-able parts, which is what I mean by streamlining.  There has been a significant drop in average price of units, and a quite noticeable return to revenue growth for 6 straight quarters now.  He has done so well, his role at Cisco has greatly increased, taking on IoT, the analytics group and Cisco’s DevNet platform.  Rowan Trollope has definitely turned things around in my view for Cisco Collaboration.


All that being said, there is still work to do, especially now with what I view as a crowded market and confusion over Cisco’s UC Cloud offerings.  One of Trollope’s primary endeavors since leading Collab at Cisco, was to launch what started as “Project Squared” and has evolved into “Cisco Spark”.  Spark, like competitors Slack, HipChat, even Acano (Before Cisco snatched them up, more on that later)…are messaging-centric collaboration tools.  Spark’s differentiator is that it combines this with Voice, Video and Conferencing (video and web).  They have made many enhancements to the app since it first came out, the latest of which “Teams” is by far my favorite.

Now Spark has evolved into a full Cloud UC service.  They offer Spark Message, Meet and Call.  It is truly a multi featured application, and the integration of the product within WebEx and even traditional UCM via the hybrid integration is a pretty compelling story.  The ultimate goal of UCM on-premise installs incorporating the “Expressway” solution to bridge the gap between an on-premise solution and cloud services is a comprehensive collaboration solution.  This combined with the clear cloud hosting direction with Spark Call, I was starting to think I understood the vision.

But then Meraki went and announced their cloud voice service and the vision got muddled real quick.  At first, I was not sure I understood the thought process here?  I mean, I thought the plan was to use “Spark Call” for HCS, and now Meraki is trying to get in the game too?  How is Cisco going to spin this?  How does internal Cisco UC folks feel about this?  Will they work together?  Wil they be Integrated somehow?

After the dust has settled a bit, and we at Byteworks actually got our hands on two of Meraki’s MC74s, the picture has cleared somewhat.  Some of this is just in understanding things from Meraki’s perspective and now Cisco’s.  First, I got the opportunity to listen to Simon Thompson (Manager of Product Marketing at Meraki) on #CiscoChampion Radio explain that this is not a competitor to Cisco Spark.  This is a device for a limited market, that market being those that have invested in Cisco Meraki Cloud for their switching, wireless and security products already.  The logic being, the draw here is not necessarily the phone, but the dashboard and provisioning ease that it offers is the real ace to this customer set.

It does make sense.  I myself have become a Meraki convert, setting it up at my house and now my parent’s house.  Parental IT Support has gotten a lot easier for me, I’ll admit, and setting up that VPN tunnel took me what, 5 seconds?  The ease of setup and the administrative management and of course the Dashboard is undoubtedly a compelling selling point of Meraki’s products.

We do quite regularly see Cisco versus Meraki competitive situations.  An ASA versus an MX.  Cisco versus Meraki Wireless.  Ease of management versus more features in many cases.  So, logic dictates then that yeah, there will be face-offs.  But just like in the route/switch or wireless or security instances, it is ultimately the features that are needed that determine what is purchased, thus there are wins for both still.  Some customers will need more advanced features of a Cisco switch infrastructure versus the Meraki, and some will need the ease of administration and provisioning more than any advanced feature.  Cisco has products to help both kinds of customers.  Cisco wins in both instances, or at least they compete in both, which is smart on their part.

So, they same logic is behind the phones.  The phones themselves are a way different product than what Spark or full blown UCM offer.  They are simple.  They do not provide dial tone.  When you pick up the handset, there is no dial tone, although there is DTMF feedback when pressing the digits and sending the call.  All in all, the experience is more like a cell phone versus an office phone.  The voicemail setup is on the phone itself, it offers a limited IVR functionality (Auto Attendant).  It does allow the import of Google directories, or CVS import.  Other than this, the phone is a different featuring offer than a typical Cisco IP Phone.  No Presence.  No Video. Limited Reporting and CDR.  No Single Number Reach or extension mobility or WebEx/Spark integration.  It is a simple solution which has a fit, but not for all customers.

Now, back to Acano.  How does this fit in?  Is it not similar to what Cisco has tried to do with Cisco Spark?  Why did Cisco not purchase Slack?  How does Acano fit into the overall Cisco Collaboration umbrella?  While the roadmap for Acano is far from clear, the future does seem brighter after hearing about Acano’s future from Cisco’s Albert Amparan (Technical Marketing Engineer)  and many others on the Acano team, again on #CiscoChampion Radio.  Acano was purchased by Cisco because of it’s on-premise potential and interoperability between all players, including Microsoft Lync, PolyCom, Cisco, etc.,  Acano will be (going forward) the on-premise bridging solution, there is a lot of value-add functionality that the tech provides (Microsoft Lync/S4B interop, full branding, massive scalability and global distribution.  

No doubt, it is a wonderful VMR (Virtual Meeting Room) product as well, and there may be many ways that some of it (Acano technology) can be leveraged as several have conjectured with Cisco Spark, or WebEx or Cisco Jabber…  But Cisco has it’s eyes on replacing the convoluted solution of Telepresence Server (TPS), Conductor, and Telepresence Management System (TMS) with the all-in-one Acano solution.  That alone is music to my ears, as the process of implementing TPS/CON/TMS right now is not a fun one in the least.

All in all, yes there is a lot of activity in the Cisco Collab world right now, and a lot of murkiness.  That being said, I do feel better after hearing from the powers to be at Cisco as to what is actually going on here, what the deal is with Meraki Voice, where does Acano fit in, and the fact that the roadmap will be getting clearer soon.

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