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Cisco started Spark in the cloud, but the team collaboration app turned unified communications platform is becoming an optional engine for earthbound communications hardware.
Cisco introduced at the Enterprise Connect conference this week the Spark Room Kit and Room Kit Plus -- video-conferencing devices that attach to any third-party high-definition display. The rectangular Spark hybrid technology includes codec, speakers, microphone and cameras powerful enough to handle conferencing in rooms that sit up to 15 people.
The Room Kits are controllable through the company's Spark Cloud or Cisco on-premises UC gear. The either-or approach differs from the Spark Board interactive display launched in January. The combined electronic whiteboard, video conferencing system and presentation screen is only controlled through the cloud-based Spark app running on a laptop, smartphone or tablet.
The Room Kits do not have whiteboard capabilities, but they can provide video conferencing and display content from users' devices. The systems turn on automatically when a person enters the room with a mobile device registered in the Spark Cloud or with Cisco's on-premises Unified Communications Manager.
The always-on feature makes the devices easier to use for people entering a small conference room for an impromptu meeting. "We have a lot more ad hoc meetings going on than structured, formalized meetings," said Jon Arnold, an analyst at Toronto-based J Arnold & Associates and a TechTarget contributor. "It's a recognition that in today's [business] environment, a lot of things happen ad hoc, so you need a system that will be there when you need it."
Having the option to connect the Room Kit to the cloud on an on-premises system is a nod to Cisco's roots as a hardware maker. Most customers use Cisco on-premises equipment and are not willing to give up their investment to move to the cloud.
Spark and Spark Board, on the other hand, represent Cisco's future. Sales of networking and on-premises-only UC hardware are slowing. To re-energize sales, Cisco is offering to move its customers gradually to its software and cloud-based services.
Cisco opens up Spark meetings, security
To help with that transition, Cisco announced at Enterprise Connect that starting in May, a Cisco on-premises video conferencing endpoint or third-party SIP-based product, such as Microsoft Skype for Business, could join a Spark meeting through Cisco's on-premises hybrid media software.
Cisco introduced the Spark hybrid software last November, along with a flex plan for cloud, on-premises or hybrid UC products. Companies can switch to the cloud or a hybrid option at any time without affecting the original price of the plan.
Another Spark hybrid announcement at Enterprise Connect involved security. Cisco introduced the option of downloading Spark's key management software, so security-sensitive organizations could control the encryption and decryption of content moving to and from the cloud.
Such an option is critical to government agencies and financial institutions considering subscribing to cloud services, said Angela Mistretta, marketing director for Cisco collaboration products.
Finally, Cisco unveiled at the UC conference cloud-based customer service software, called Spark Care. The product lets up to 20 service agents handle a maximum of five chats and one callback with visitors on a company's website. An annual subscription costs roughly $200 per user. A monthly subscription costs $20 per user.
Pricing for the Room Kit is $3,990, plus $99 a month for access to the Spark Cloud and software updates and support. The Room Kit Plus, which includes table microphones and additional cameras for accommodating rooms of up to 15 people, costs $7,990, plus the same monthly subscription. The basic Room Kit supports a room of up to eight people.
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