Collaboration battleground: Skype vs Cisco Spark in the enterprise

A showdown is brewing between Microsoft's Skype for Business and Cisco's Spark, writes IDC Australia's Siow-Meng Soh

Cisco in March announced the launch of Spark at Enterprise Connect 2015 in Orlando, USA, which coincided with CiscoLive 2015 in Melbourne. A few months earlier Microsoft had announced its integration of Skype and Lync under the banner of 'Skype for Business,' and it has several partners on board now to bring the solution to the market in 1H15.

People today are used to communicating with each other across multiple channels. Increasingly, communications are conducted via mobile devices and across social media.

Collaboration, after all, should not be confined within an organisation, and there is a need for connecting with partners, suppliers, and customers

While consumers are spoilt for choice with different tools and apps available from app stores, they may find it more limiting when they enter the workspace. Vendors have been trying to change this by developing solutions that provide a consumer-like experience whilst keeping all communications secured.

Cisco Spark

Spark is the commercial brand name for 'Project Square' (first announced by Cisco in November last year). The solution enables team collaboration, connecting users inside and outside of an organisation to work on a project.

Spark is essentially a messaging agent that allows users to get connected in virtual meeting rooms and use different means of communications (voice, video, messaging, and content sharing) instead of the getting everyone physically in a room or sending emails back and forth (Cisco does not have an email business to protect).

Participants can join using any device (Android, iOS, PC, and Mac) by downloading the Spark app from an app store or connecting through a web browser. Similar to WebEx, Spark is a cloud-based solution hosted by Cisco.

Cisco is expected to allow the integration of third-party solutions through open application programming interfaces (APIs) — Box has already been named as a partner, allowing Spark users to share files via their Box accounts. More partnership announcements are expected.

Cisco has been working with customers to enhance the solution before formally launching it. Telstra is one of the customers as well as a partner. The local telco claims to see positive business benefits in introducing Spark in the organisation, and it is upbeat about taking Spark to the market.

Cisco is positioning Spark both as a collaboration platform and a client — with WebEx getting old from a technology standpoint, Spark provides an opportunity for Cisco to merge its collaborations platforms (HCS, WebEx, and Telepresence) across a single federated environment that offers enterprise security and function in a consumer-like user experience.

Goodbye Lync, hello Skype for Business

Microsoft, on the other hand, has been trying to strengthen its voice platform to its collaboration portfolio. The company announced in November 2014 that the next version of Lync would be rebranded as “Skype for Business,' which is due in 1H15.

The rebranded and merged offering will provide the user experience of Skype and the business communication and collaboration capabilities of Microsoft Lync.

More crucially, the integration of Lync with Skype will enable collaboration between corporate Lync users and over 300 million Skype users. Microsoft is essentially offering corporate customers the ability to collaborate with external parties using an interface that many people are already familiar with.

Collaboration using Skype is not limited to specific endpoints, and users are able to call any phone number, not just existing Skype or Lync users.

The future of collaboration

The collaboration market has been fragmented, and there are various vendors focusing on solving different problems. Nonetheless, there is a general trend toward consolidation, such as Mitel’s acquisition of Aastra in 2013 and the proposed acquisition of ShoreTel in 2014.

Vendors are also expected to continue forging alliances (e.g., Polycom with Microsoft and Google with Avaya) to strengthen their overall product offerings.

While cloud solutions are gaining popularity, customers are still grappling with security and data sovereignty issues.

IDC expects to see more collaboration applications moving into the cloud as customers do not want to own the complexity of these solutions and to enable interoperability and federation.

Collaboration, after all, should not be confined within an organisation, and there is a need for connecting with partners, suppliers, and customers.

While several telcos and systems integrators (SIs) now offer unified communications as a service (UCaaS) using the Cisco HCS platform, customers that have moved to UCaaS are mostly large enterprises, partly due to the cost of the service. Spark, on the other hand, should appeal to midmarket and small and medium-sized business (SMB) customers due to the low capital investment required.

However, by adding Spark, Cisco has created yet another product within its collaboration portfolio. The vendor should accelerate the unification of some of its products (Jabber and WebEx) to allow marketing to focus on a single brand.

Read more: Is Skype finally ready for call centres?

Microsoft’s Skype for Business would appeal to enterprise users who are looking to bridge the gap between their corporate and personal environments. However, Microsoft Lync has gained significant mindshare among customers in Australia, whilst Skype is perceived to be consumer grade, leading some customers to question the voice quality Skype for Business offers.

Managing the brand perception will be a key task for Microsoft, apart from making sure that voice quality matches that of the traditional phone line.

Google is starting to pose a threat to traditional UC&C vendors such as Cisco and Microsoft. It has been forming partnerships with vendors including Avaya, Vidyo, and Cisco to strengthen its product offerings.

With a true cloud offering, Google should focus on driving success in the midmarket and SMB segments — markets that major UC&C players are trying to crack.

The UC&C market continues to evolve rapidly, with new technologies and products aiming to simplify usage and enrich user experience. However, with the new slew of offerings, enterprise customers again have to evaluate which path to take and how to ensure easy integration with existing platforms.

While cloud solutions are gaining popularity, customers are still grappling with security and data sovereignty issues. Service providers will play a key role in bridging the gap — for example, AT&T’s Advantage helps customers to unify different UC&C platforms. Service providers also need to look at partnering security vendors and working with customers to overcome security and privacy issues.

Siow-Meng is a research manager for telecommunications at IDC Australia. Siow-Meng is responsible for research and analysis of the Australian telecommunications market focusing on enterprise services.

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Tags unified communicationsskypeapplicationsMicrosoftciscoUnified Communications as a Service (UCaaS)softwarecollaborationunified communications (UC)Cisco Spark

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