phone booth

If a colleague could dial you on the phone, but when you picked up the receiver (an archaic word for what we now call the smartphone), you could launch a videoconference and add people to it at will, would it mean something to you?

Cisco has been among a number of firms working over the years to produce a videoconferencing service that software — including the code in your phone — can recognize as a legitimate substitute for the main public phone network (PSTN). But with its strong position in Internet service, Cisco may be in the strongest position to actually make this happen.

At a Cisco conference in San Francisco yesterday, the company revealed its next incremental step toward a “dial tone” for videoconferencing: an update to its Spark vcon system that a senior product director described for CMSWire as a seamless, cloud-based replacement for PBX.

“This calling service is a multi-instance, pure cloud implementation,” said Cisco’s Ross Daniels, “delivered and hosted from the Cisco cloud and sold by partners. This will allow folks to do full enterprise dialing, to make calls via PSTN as well.”

Open Calling

This is not to say that Cisco is declaring itself a public service carrier, Daniels pointed out. But it is to say that Spark will be leveraging Cisco’s undisputed strengths in IP networking to deploy its conferencing platform in such a way as to let phone users bypass the phone part of communication.

Put another way: You’re probably used to setting up e-mails that contain the links, which serve as invitations to participants to join a meeting. Last year, at then-CEO John Chambers’ behest, Cisco vowed to radically simplify the meeting setup process, first with what appeared to be a general replacement for its WebEx meeting service, then later with its first trials of a collaboration platform originally code-named “Project Squared.”

That project became Spark last March, in a move that disappointed IT personnel who had already grown accustomed to using that word in reference to a fast-growing analytics engine for big data.

WebEx had been working toward a one-link approach to accessing conferences, giving everyone a single URL and letting the cloud-based software mitigate the problems of delegating access. Spark then took a different approach; by setting up a meeting area that everyone already had access to, and encouraging collaborators to use Spark’s streaming messaging instead of e-mail for arranging meetings.

Tuesday’s announcement for Spark’s next big step more closely resembles Chambers’ dream service, which he outlined last year in public remarks that seemed so extemporaneous that they actually may have come as news to his own engineers.

Beginning next month, with implementation in staggered stages in selected countries throughout Q1 2016, said Ross Daniels, Cisco will be peering (collaborating at a technical level) with its preferred media partners, for its PSTN-triggered service. The Spark application, which up to now users had been perceiving as a messaging stream, will in due course become a dialing console for initiating calls, some of which trigger these peering-oriented connections.

So for example, if an employee is away from her desk and someone were to ring her enterprise phone number, the call will automatically be forwarded to the Spark application on her mobile device. Likewise, any corporate call placed from that device will include the same call history and details that she’d have received from her desk.

Imagine, in other words, if connectivity were actually mobile.


When necessary or desired, Cisco’s cloud makes necessary connections to the PSTN, rather than rely upon the receiving parties to also have the Spark application. “It’s going to be full PSTN calling,” said Daniels, “from our cloud to the PSTN, and then out.

“We’re doing this as an expansion of Spark from a messaging-centric service to full collaboration-as-a-service,” he continued.

A Cisco gateway can be used, through this service, to link existing on-premises Collaboration Manager instances with cloud-based calling services. Once the cloud service becomes aware of on-premise Call Control, Cisco then enables what it’s calling “zero-touch meeting.”

“If I receive a phone call on my enterprise phone number, Spark is going to recognize that and immediately pull into the foreground the Spark application,” Daniels explained, “and a one-on-one room with the person calling me. One thing that allows me to do is instantly be able to share content from my Desktop.”

While partners will still be able to offer the Spark messaging service a la carte, he noted, Cisco will continue to offer them ways to resell full Spark communications services under their own brands.

This way, communications service providers will be given incentives to move off of their old infrastructure, and onto Cisco’s IP platform, complete with the app-centered functionality that mobile users are looking for. Alternately, for organizations that already use Cisco’s Call Control services, they can integrate Spark’s cloud-based messaging into their on-premises Call Control systems. And they can do so without the user noticing too many distinct differences in functionality, Daniels promised.

One difference a user may notice right away, though, is the ability to control and exchange data with the desk phone remotely from the app, even if that phone is, well, a phone.

“So think about this as automatically creating a meeting for every phone call,” said Daniels.

“I didn’t have to do anything; I just picked up the phone. My Spark application automatically recognized what was going on, and brought to the foreground what might be useful — the one-on-one room that I have with whoever’s calling me, the things that we talked about in the past, and the ability to share content with just a click.”

Cisco will be rolling out these features to new and existing Spark customers throughout the first calendar quarter of 2016.

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Title image by Ryan McGuire