Shots Fired! The Cisco Spark Board Takes On Microsoft’s Surface Hub

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This week Cisco made a major announcement of a new product line. The Cisco Spark Board adds a new element to their collaboration line-up, and increases its competitive stance with arch-rival Microsoft. I was pre-briefed on this announcement by Jonathan Rosenberg (VP and CTO, Collaboration at Cisco). Within the first few minutes of the presentation I realized this product is a very different approach for Cisco. They don’t see this as an addition to the list of equipment you need to enable a collaboration space, they see the Cisco Spark Board as an all-in-one which eliminates the need for anything else on the list. Just as the PC has replaced all of our desktop tools (see below), the Cisco Spark Board is designed to take care of all our meeting room needs.

Evolution of the WorkDesk

Jonathan described it as a “best in class” all-in-one, speakerphone, video system, whiteboard, and wireless screen share device. Yes, there is a lot of hardware technology at work here. However, by the end of the presentation, I saw it as something more significant. In my mind, the Cisco Spark Board is the physical manifestation of a Spark workspace. Before I explain exactly what I mean by that, let’s take a minute to look at what this new product is up against.

The Microsoft Surface Hub

This may be one of the most controversial devices in the history of our space. Analysts gave it a mixed review at best, it had several unsettling delays before hitting the market, and some major resellers and integrators appear to be betting the farm on it. However, at the end of the day it has turned into a billion dollar business for the gang at Redmond.

It is essentially a wall mounted Windows 10 PC, with videoconferencing (Skype for Business), whiteboarding, and wireless screen sharing capabilities. It’s list price is $21,999 for the 84″ version and $8,999 for the 55″ version. While it was originally seen by the analyst community as nothing more than a Skype room system, a quick look at its specs and capabilities makes its true purpose clear. This is for active team working sessions in collaborative spaces. Regardless of whether you love or hate the Surface Hub, it has undeniably mainstreamed the all-in-one collaboration market category.

The Cisco Spark Board

From a hardware perspective, there are 4 major elements of the new device. However, there is one key theme running through it all. That is the Cisco Spark experience. As you will see, this isn’t just a piece of hardware that happens to run Cisco Spark. This is an effective way to take the Cisco Spark project workflow and bring it to the meeting room. Let’s take a quick look at the basic four elements.

1. Wireless Screen Share
We’ve all had it with cable adaptors and dongles. Wireless screen share is the way to go. However, the network connections required to make it work can sometimes be a bit tricky. Cisco addresses this issue with Spark. If your device, (whether it be a PC, Mac, laptop, or mobile) is running Spark, the board will detect it via proximity (ultrasound) and make a connection. In other words, you don’t have to mess with bluetooth or sign into a network. You simply have to walk into the meeting room with your device in hand. Then your Spark device can be mirrored onto the Spark Board.

This is a great example of what I mean by saying that this new device is just an extension of your Spark workflow into the meeting room. Even better, any files or images shared during the meeting are automatically saved into the appropriate Spark channel. If you are meeting with your sales team, you will be working in your Spark sales channel, and any files shared will be part of the ongoing conversation in that Spark channel. This is the kind of efficient workflow that gets productivity geeks excited.

2. Whiteboard
We all love digital whiteboards. Electronically saving whiteboard work is far superior to taking pictures of the whiteboard with our phones. We need to save our in-progress project drawings, and writing “DO NOT ERASE” on the board is not an ideal solution. While several digital whiteboards offer capture and save capabilities, it is another level of efficiency to have all whiteboard drawings saved automatically to the appropriate Spark channel. In other words, you don’t have to click any kind of “save” button. You just draw, and that drawing is in your Spark channel.

If your dev team is designing your new product, any member of the team can access any active whiteboard drawing at any time, via their own devices, or via a Spark Board. Multiple members of the team can even draw at the same time, and the updated drawing is reflected live on everyone’s devices. This is true, real time, collaboration. Again, this is a perfect example of what I like about the Spark Board. It isn’t just integrating its whiteboarding to your Spark channel, its whiteboarding capabilities are an extension of your Spark workflow.

3. Speakerphone
The Spark Board has a mic array running along the top of it. This eliminates the need for a center of table speakerphone. I am sure that many of you will need to hear it to believe it, but it is designed to locate and capture the active speaker from any location within the meeting room, with no need for mic extensions. My understanding is that Cisco will eventually bring more WebEx capabilities to Spark, which will allow standard phone callers to dial in to Spark meetings. With this in place, the Spark Board can truly replace the traditional meeting room speakerphone.

4. Videoconferencing System
The Spark Board has an integrated 4k camera. This may seem excessive, as most people connecting to Spark Board meetings will not have a 4k display (although the board itself is 4k). However, 4k is essential for an important item on Cisco’s roadmap for this device. As I’ve mentioned in recent articles, we are looking to solve the PTZ problem in the meeting room. To provide a more immersive experience we need a way for the camera to focus on the active speaker, without asking meeting attendees to manually manipulate the camera.

With a 4k camera we can capture the entire room with a fixed camera. This opens the possibility of digitally zooming and panning around the room, without the distraction of a physically moving camera. Just as importantly, when you zoom in on a 4k image, you can still get an HD (1080p or 720p) result. Cisco has existing speaker tracking technology to leverage here. My understanding is that this PTZ replacement capability isn’t just on the Cisco wish list, but is under active development.

Final Thoughts

“Shots Fired” seems like a bit of a clickbait title for this article. However, the MSRP for the 55″ Spark Board is $4,990. This is about 55% of the price of the 55″ Surface Hub. That won’t make Microsoft happy. There will also be a 70″ Spark Board at $9,990. Both boards also require a $199 per month fee for the cloud service. The $4,990 price point puts this device in the acceptable price range for a lot more collaboration spaces, including huddle rooms. The market is looking for more affordable ways to enable working teams as evidenced by the massive popularity of USB conference cameras at a sub $1,000 price point. When you compare the price of the Spark Board with a peripheral based bundle (USB camera, PC, whiteboard, speakerphone, mics, etc.), you will find it is in that ballpark, whereas the Surface Hub is priced a bit high to be truly democratized to the working masses.

This article may seem a bit overly positive for a product that I have not yet tested myself. However, I am a workflow guy. While I do love great technology, at this point, I basically expect the technology to be amazing. It is 2017 after all, we have self driving electric cars and flying drones. It is getting harder and harder to impress me with hardware. I get more excited about team productivity and efficiency. While I have been critical of Spark at times, it has continually improved and offers the right kind of workflow for today’s productive teams.

When I was told I was going to get briefed on a Cisco Spark Board, I basically expected that Cisco’s hardware team built a board with a bunch of bells and whistles, and then installed Spark on it as an afterthought. After talking with Jonathan, it was clear to me that the vision from day one was to take the Spark experience, and bring it to the meeting room. When developers start with the user experience as the lead and let the technology follow, they are off to a good start in my opinion.

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About Author

David Maldow is the Founder & CEO of Let's Do Video and one of the visual collaboration industry's most prolific writers. Prior to founding Let’s Do Video, David was Managing Partner at Telepresence Options, one of the industry’s most recognized print publication and news sites. It was there that he authored 150+ pieces of public content, gaining him recognition as an industry expert. Earlier in his career, David managed the Wainhouse Research Video Test Lab, where he developed the ability to assess products / solutions from an IT perspective, but with an eye for user experience and adoptability.

3 Comments

  1. hst@haraldsteindl.eu'

    The traditional AV (AudioVideo) channel is not yet used to selling service contracts. So, although the Sparkboard is significantly cheaper than the SurfaceHub it will be interestingly to watch, if Cicso will manage to educate the AV dealers to sell their 199$ a months.
    Because, no matter if they (MS & Cisco) will like it or not, they will need the AV channel to sell into the meeting rooms.

  2. sharman@atlantispartners.com'

    It might be interesting to see a comparison of the penetration rates of Microsoft Skype for Business and Cisco Spark. While the Spark Board is a great product, it would never get much traction in an enterprise that has standardized on Skype for Business. And likewise in the opposite scenario.
    One question that I have is; what is the Spark Board capable of if the network goes down? Not that that has ever happened….

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