This year was my first time attending the Cisco Summit and to be honest, I was worried it might get a little awkward. The event itself was massive and impressively well coordinated. I saw many familiar industry insider faces being shuffled too and fro by Cisco’s event team through the maze of the beautiful Arizona Grand Resort. From the keynotes, to the sessions, to the skywriting, even to the meals, the event was flawless and team Cisco was a wonderful host.
So what could be awkward? Well, I wasn’t happy about Spark. It’s a long story starting back in the days before team messaging exploded in our space. I had been using Lync and email to communicate with my team. I saw the value in UC, but the workflow always felt limited to me. Then, my team got into Slack in the very early days and it changed everything. Instead of using a UC tool to communicate with my team, I was using this new tool to actually get work done with my team.
That’s when I realized I needed to start covering workflow, and that we needed an enterprise ready team messaging platform. Cisco got this very early with Project Squared, which became Spark. My early coverage of Spark was so positive that other industry analysts questioned it to my face. My feeling at the time was that someone needed to support the new team workflow in the enterprise and Cisco was positioned to get there first and do it best. With all of this in mind, I had big expectations for Spark.
So this is where it gets awkward. Here I am, Spark’s biggest initial fan, wearing my Spark socks, sitting at a media breakfast with Rowan Trollope (SVP & GM – Cisco’s Applications) who is about to tell me that Spark is being replaced by Webex Teams. I couldn’t help myself and snarkily asked if I could have the Spark brand if he didn’t want it anymore. He said I am very welcome to use it, along with the dozens of other companies using it if I want to deal with that marketing confusion headache. I did a quick Google search and found: Spark energy supplements, Spark design consulting, Spark essential oils, Spark cleaning solutions, Spark seed activator, Spark smart water bottles, and countless others. Of course, on the other hand, there is only one Webex and it is synonymous with enterprise collaboration. I decided snark wasn’t a good look for me and started paying attention.
The New Webex Teams and Webex Meetings
The brand recognition of Webex can’t be denied. Hundreds of millions of people make billions of minutes of Webex calls every month. On the other hand, it isn’t a perfect brand name. It isn’t bad, it just needs to further disassociate with old versions of the product. People used to complain about the Webex experience back in the early versions, but a few years ago they refreshed it and made it a lot better. People liked this refreshed version although it still had a screenshare first, video second, presentation which seemed a little old-school (the new version is full-screen video first, as you would expect). There are a few companies still locked down in the super early versions, and Cisco will work to transition them to the newest version both to better serve those customers, and to protect the brand by only having it associated with the latest experience.
As far as the new Webex Meetings and Webex Teams solutions, from my quick preview they both look like what we currently expect from a modern cloud video solution, and a modern cloud team messaging solution. Rowan, Sri Srinivasan (VP and GM, Team Collaboration Group), and Jonathan Rosenberg (CTO for Cisco Collaboration), took us through the new solutions as they are today, as well as what to expect in the future (heavy on the AI). I need to get my hands on them and play for a few weeks before I can tell you what I really think, but my first impression is that they will both serve the Webex brand well. Furthermore, it will be far more obvious to users that these are, in fact, sibling solutions. If you start a video call from within Webex Teams, it is a real Webex Meetings call with all the bells and whistles. I am sure a lot of Cisco sales people struggled to answer the question of whether their customers should use Spark or Webex. Now it is a much easier answer. You use both, Webex Teams for team/project based messaging and Webex Meetings for video calls. Pretty simple from a marketing perspective, and from an adoption perspective.
It should be noted that Spark was not simply renamed Webex Teams. Spark was the first foray, and while a lot was learned, it is being replaced by a completely new solution. Webex Teams from first glance appears to be much more along the lines of the current generation of popular team messaging platforms than Spark was in terms of appearance and UI design. I was sure to ask, and relieved to hear, that Spark’s massive library of partner developed app integrations will work seamlessly with new Webex Teams.
Other Summit News
While the new Webex was the big news, there is a lot more going on at Cisco and there was a lot to learn at this event. Rowan’s keynote included a real crowd-pleaser with the announcement of the Webex Share. Many rooms have an existing monitor or “old TV” that sits unused during meetings because no one can figure out the dongles and cables. This device makes it easy for anyone running Webex on their laptop to pair it to that big monitor. A somewhat unique take on the relatively new huddle room video kit market.
BroadSoft got a lot of attention, with their CEO, Michael Tessler, giving a keynote to an extremely attentive audience. My quick takeaway is that we all know the expression, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and it appears that Cisco is very aware that BroadSoft (and their existing carrier relationships) do not need fixing. Better integration between BroadSoft and Cisco technologies is a priority, but nothing that will disrupt the current status quo. They wouldn’t mind seeing some more Cisco phones get bundled into BroadSoft packages, but the current roster of competitive products will continue to be fully available and supported.
Angie Mistretta, (Director of Cisco Collaboration Endpoint Technology Marketing), gave a demo on the main stage that had the crowd buzzing, and my Twitter feed lighting up. Augmented reality isn’t anything new. Many of us have gimmicky consumer apps on our smartphones that can make dinosaurs or fluffy cartoon bunnies appear to be in real space around us. However, we have yet to see it find real adoption as a readily available collaboration tool for enterprise. Angie simply pointed her phone at an empty space on the stage, and was able to easily walk around, and manipulate, a 3-D virtual image of a physical Cisco product in her line. The power of this demonstration was in the way that Angie showed how she would naturally use the tool, as a marketing exec showing off one of her products. In other words, this isn’t just cool demo-ware technology, this is stuff we should be using in 2018.
Cisco is doing a lot of work behind the scenes (and making key acquisitions) when it comes to AI and machine learning. Jonathan Rosenberg spoke at the event on Cisco’s AI initiatives and introduced us to the Webex Graph. To put it in the simplest terms, every part of the Cisco infrastructure and experience is going to be smart, and it’s all going to talk to each other. There will be many manifestations of this borg-like intelligence in the years to come, but first, we will be getting our Webex Assistants. You can think of it is Ok Google for the office, but there is a lot more to it, in part due to the potential of the Cisco Grid. As Jonathan explained to us, home assistants are fundamentally different than office assistants. Home products, like Alexa, need a broad, shallow, knowledge to cover a lot of random questions about music, movies, and everything else. Office assistants need a narrower, but much deeper, understanding of your workflow. When you say “Hey Webex, send Jonathan the files for next week’s meeting,” it has to know you and your work well enough to figure out which Jonathan, which files, and which meeting you are talking about. This is where the power of the Webex Graph will come into play. That being said, Cisco has no interest in making a consumer AI product. You should ask Webex to schedule your meeting, not to remind you to get milk on the way home.
Press had the opportunity to question a panel of Cisco users managing massive enterprise collaboration deployments, and there was a lot to learn from them. First of all, they do not rely on the old “No one gets fired for buying Cisco” motto. They are looking closely at Cisco’s competitors, including the newer/smaller cloud vendors, and doing heavy trials and comparison testing. To be fair, they only had good things to say about the competition. This market is full of innovation and good design. But in the end, each one had a reason that Cisco was right for them. One common theme was the value they get from Cisco Support. When you roll out collaboration tools for thousands of users, you are going to run into some unexpected hurdles and need a little handholding. It can be a struggle to get personalized attention and support from a company the size of Cisco and its major competitors, but every end users on the panel was simply heaping praise upon Cisco Support. This was clearly one of their key factors in staying with Cisco.
I also learned that Jabber isn’t going anywhere. When I look at Jabber and Webex Teams, I personally see no reason to use Jabber. I think it can all be done with Webex Teams. Any Jabber features that aren’t already in Teams can be easily added. That being said, Jabber still matters. I spoke to Cisco customers using Jabber and I learned that they live on it. It is the oxygen of their communications and they really love it. They don’t just think it does the job, they love it. I think the personal vision of Cisco execs may be for the world to use Webex, but they understand and respect the fact that their Jabber customers want to stay with Jabber. While it may not get any major announcements on the main stage, Jabber is not only being supported, but is still be developed to add new features for their customers.
I think the biggest lesson learned from Spark is that the UI design of a teams solution can’t be an afterthought. Spark hardware products won award after award for their incredible design, meanwhile the Spark desktop client never stopped looking like a beta. Spark had all of the capabilities, but it wasn’t any fun to use, so it never went viral. If you get the design right, not just appearance, but the workflow, your users won’t just log into it when the need to send a message, they will have it open all day. If you get the design right, users will get everyone in their work-lives to join them on the platform. It will be a self-adopting tool, the holy grail of business communications.