Cisco shakes up collaboration efforts; morphs Spark into Webex

Cisco Spark will become Webex Teams as part of a ‘fundamental shift’ that includes new leadership and more A.I. integration.

cisco spark room kit

Cisco’s collaboration business is evolving, with new leadership poised to take over and a new emphasis on artificial intelligence.

The company recently announced that its Spark team messaging app will be rebranded and rolled into its Webex platform. And this week, it said Rowan Trollope – who has led Cisco’s collaboration efforts since 2012 – is leaving and will be replaced by Amy Chang, founder and CEO of Accompany, the AI business intelligence startup acquired for $270 million on Tuesday. 

Chang, a former Google employee, will resign from Cisco’s board to become senior vice president in charge of the Collaboration Technology Group. 

“Together, we have a tremendous opportunity to further enhance AI and machine learning capabilities in our collaboration portfolio and continue to create amazing collaboration experiences for customers,” Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins said in an announcement.

The move follows a decision to ditch the Cisco Spark brand, which will become Webex Teams. The app will include all of Spark’s collaboration features, including persistent messaging, whiteboarding, simple guest access and content sharing. 

Cisco also launched a new Webex Meetings videoconferencing app, which will replace Spark’s meeting app. Spark video meetings had previously operated independently from Webex, hosted in the public cloud rather on Webex data centers. As a result of the changes, both Webex Meetings and Webex Teams will run on the Webex infrastructure backbone.

IDC research director Wayne Kurtzman said the rebranding is “not just marketing. It is a fundamental shift to include calling, meetings, video, collaboration and their in-room devices under what they perceive is their most well-known brand, Webex,” he said.

The name change extends to all Spark products, such as the Spark Board digital whiteboard - which becomes Webex Board - and an upcoming Spark Assistant AI feature will become Webex Assistant.  Cisco has been talking up voice-activated AI since last fall.

The decision to merge Spark and Webex mirrors rival Microsoft’s decision to centralize its communications and collaboration tools around Teams and phase out the Skype for Business brand.

Cisco also promised to make it easier for customers to jump between Webex and various other team messaging tools that exist, with plans to integrate with “Google, Slack and others”.

According to Jon Arnold, independent analyst for J Arnold & Associates, there was a “fair bit of overlap” between Spark and Webex. Merging the two products will help to simplify the company’s  portfolio and make use of the well-established Webex brand.

“The decision to favor the Webex brand over Spark is about what the marketplace knows, what the marketplace understands and trusts and is already used to paying money for,” he said. “Webex is the one that makes the money and that is important for Cisco.”

A more focused product portfolio will also benefit Cisco’s partners. “The channel has to sell this stuff and they already know how to make money with Webex,” said Arnold. One reason Spark has been slow to generate revenues is because it is “a hard sell to the channel.

“The distinction between team collaboration and meetings is kind of an industry thing; I don't think that people in the workplace think along those lines,” he said. “So this is part of the simplification route that Cisco is taking.”

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

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