Cisco's Spark grows into a phone and meeting platform for the Cloud

The service will get call features and integration with in-office collaboration systems next year

Cisco Systems is rethinking its collaboration tools from the bottom up, turning the lowly Spark text-messaging app into a Cloud-based platform that includes videoconferencing and the core features of an enterprise phone system.

Spark, which debuted last year as an app called Project Square, is central to the company's strategy of using cloud computing to deliver collaboration to everyone in an organization. Cisco says it's not abandoning its dedicated collaboration products; in fact, it's offering ways to hook some desk phones and a big-screen video meeting system into Spark. But the company's focus is now on the cloud.

At the center of Spark is one-to-one and group messaging and content sharing with persistence, so messages are still available after the conversation is over. When the new version arrives in the first quarter of next year, users will also be able to make and receive voice calls and host and participate in video meetings from within Spark. These additions begin to fulfill Cisco's vision for the system.

"When we launched Project Square, we said, 'We're showing you an app, but what we're building is a platform,'" said Ross Daniels, senior director of collaboration marketing.

The services that users will reach through Spark will be hosted in Cisco's own cloud infrastructure and sold by the same kinds of partners that deliver the company's collaboration products now, including service providers and systems integrators. In the future, it's likely that aspects of Spark will also be hosted in partners' data centers through Cisco's Intercloud platform, Daniels said.

As a voice-calling platform, Spark will go beyond simple chatting to include voicemail and the basic capabilities of a corporate PBX, such as the ability to hold and transfer calls.

But Cisco knows many of its customers are heavily invested in phones, videoconferencing systems and collaboration software in their own facilities. Even though smartphones are ubiquitous and highly capable, enterprises keep buying desk phone systems for optimal sound quality and advanced features like call logging and departmental billing, according to Daniels. "Our phone business is as strong as it has ever been," he said.

The company will let employees at sites with these Cisco on-premises platforms, like Unified Communications Manager, take advantage of Spark cloud services. New gateway software will make the Spark cloud aware of the on-premises systems as part of the same enterprise. Third-party systems like Microsoft Exchange and Active Directory can also be part of this hybrid setup.

This will allow for smooth integration, Cisco says. For example, when an employee with a desk phone gets a call from a coworker who's using Spark, a one-on-one meeting room in Spark can immediately open the phone user's PC browser so the two workers can use video or share content.

Spark can also be integrated into specific devices in the office that can be updated to run Spark as an operating system. This capability will come first to Cisco's 7800 and 8800 Series phones and the Cisco Telepresence SX-10 big-screen videoconferencing system. A meeting host will be able to connect an SX-10 to a Spark meeting by entering a code or just by walking into the room and tapping one button on the Spark smartphone app.

Another addition to Spark be a powerful spur to broader adoption. Cisco will now let developers extend the platform by writing their own applications or adding ones from third parties. Starting Tuesday, the company is offering APIs (application programming interfaces) through a developer portal with community support.

When Spark becomes available, it will include native integration with several applications, including Instagram, incident management tool PagerDuty and task management app Trello. For example, without any coding, users can set up Trello to notify a group chatroom in Spark every time a task in that group's project is completed, Daniels said. Spark will be a data source for app integration services like IFTTT and Zapier to set up actions such as notifications.

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