Partners Hail Cisco's New Spark Board As 'Revolutionary,' Say Its $4,990 Price Tag Will Open Up New Markets

Cisco Systems Tuesday took the wraps off Spark Board, a collaboration offering that integrates 4K ultra-high-definition cameras, microphones, audio with voice-tracking technology, Spark APIs and an interactive whiteboard all into a 55-inch touch screen with messaging, conferencing and Telepresence capabilities.

With a price tag of $4,990 and a $199 monthly software subscription model, Cisco partners are calling Spark Board a "revolutionary" collaboration product from Cisco that will open the door to new markets.

"This is a new era of collaboration we’re seeing here," said Joe Berger, collaboration practice manager for World Wide Technology (WWT), a $7 billion-plus solution provider and leading Cisco partner. "It's simplifying everything. If you look at a traditional conference room, there's a projector or monitor, a conference room phone, a video endpoint, microphones -- the fact that you can combine all of that into a $5,000 product, it makes it a lot easier to start putting these devices in more and more places. That's what [collaboration leader] Rowan [Trollope’s] intent is, I think -- putting collaboration into everyone's hands."

The product will automatically connect to any laptop, PC, Mac or mobile device with no Wi-Fi, network connection or Bluetooth required, using instead what Cisco calls "new ultrasound wireless pairing." No remote controls are needed and the interactive whiteboard feature, which includes a drawing pen, can be accessed simultaneously by anyone in the virtual room at any time.

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"This launch is massive and critically important," said Rob Bellmar, executive vice president of business operations at West Unified Communications Services, a Chicago-based Cisco partner. "Everyone who has heard about this gets excited about it, which is a good bellwether of how the market is going to react."

The San Jose, Calif.-based networking giant also launched an application suite, dubbed Spark Meetings, which enables users to interact with the Spark Board on their mobile devices.

"It's almost like the Spark Board in your pocket," said Jens Meggers, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco's Cloud Collaboration Technology Group, in an interview with CRN.

The offering combines all of the technologies needed for collaboration into one single product, according to Meggers, solving the global issue of organizations having to bring together equipment from multiple vendors, an often-complex undertaking.

"It's going to be a big game-changer because customers tell us, 'We want simplicity -- we no longer want to cobble together our collaboration solutions,'" said Meggers.

"When you look at meeting rooms, they are very complex. You might have a projector on the ceiling, a screen, a separate video system in the room, you have whiteboards, on the table are telephones, microphones that come from the video system, and in almost all cases people have a remote control – with Spark Board we're going to change it entirely," he said. "This is a device that does all of that in one device and replaces all the old physical devices."

Approximately 85 percent of meeting rooms are not yet technology-enabled, opening the door to new markets and recurring revenue opportunities for partners, Cisco’s Meggers told CRN.

Partners said Spark Board’s low price tag shows how Cisco's collaboration vision has changed since hiring Trollope, senior vice president and general manager of IoT and Applications, in 2014. Trollope told CRN in July that his plan was to make Cisco collaboration products affordable for every organization no matter the size.

"If you look back five to 10 years ago, when Cisco came out with their original Telepresence system, the experience was awesome but only the executives could actually leverage it because of the cost of those units. What they've done is said, 'We've got to make collaboration affordable for everyone,’" said WWT's Berger.

The $4,990 price tag and $199 subscription services fee is aimed at quickly driving Spark Board adoption into as many businesses and conference rooms possible, Meggers said.

"We want to get this into as many rooms and customers as possible," he said. "We know Spark Board is going to be breakthrough – that's why we came out with very aggressive pricing."

On the channel front, Spark Board will drive recurring revenue through Cisco's subscription-based Cisco Spark Flex licensing model that lets organizations choose a mix of on-premise and cloud-based services they can change at any time without additional costs, according to Gary Wolfson, global director of Cisco's Collaboration and Digital Solutions Group.

"There's a great opportunity through adoption services and life cycle for partners to monetize the platform and to enrich the relationship with their customer accounts. Adoption services really are the keys to engaging the line of business and opening up new value streams for our partners with the customer," said Wolfson.

Cisco also is opening up its Spark APIs and Cisco Spark Depot for partners to build customizable solutions for Spark Board customers.

"This platform is highly extensible. That opens up a world of opportunity to develop applications leveraging the APIs we expose to create differentiation and real sticky value with customers," said Wolfson. "This product scales from small to large, so it opens up an amazing opportunity for our partners to hit new market segments."

Cisco already has created online training videos for partners to learn about the new product. Due to Spark Board’s simplicity and plug-and-play ability, Cisco said an entire organization can get up to speed quickly.

"The training effort is far simpler than anything we've ever experienced with our partners," said Cisco’s Wolfson.

West Unified Communications Services' Bellmar said the "revolutionary" Spark Board is making collaboration "cool" again in the workplace. "It used to be as an employee, you'd go to work and get all the cool tools. For the last 10 years, that hasn't happened -- the cool toys are at home. This is bringing back the cool toys to the workplace," he said.

Partners said no other vendor in the unified communications landscape can now match the Spark ecosystem.

"A lot of parties have jumped into this space – Slack, Microsoft, Facebook – everybody is getting into this whole new world. What Cisco has done a really good job of, that I haven't seen the other parties do yet, is tie the application, the hardware, the APIs, they've built the integration through the Spark Depot – Cisco's put together this whole ecosystem under the Spark umbrella versus just a business messaging app," said WWT's Berger. "Cisco is years ahead of other [vendors] in terms of putting this whole ecosystem together."

Cisco said it plans to launch a 70-inch touch-screen version of Spark Board later this year.