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October 12, 2015updated 30 Aug 2016 10:40am

Putting the Cisco Spark into collaboration

C-level briefing: General manager of Cisco's Collaboration Technology Group Rowan Trollope lays out his plans for the future of collaboration.

By Charlotte Henry

Video conferencing is, for most of us, something to be endured. For Rowan Trollope, it’s something to be enjoyed, and embraced.

The general manager of Cisco’s Collaboration Technology Group is determined to connect businesses via high-end collaboration tools. These are demonstrated in the Cisco boardroom, which with its giant touchscreen and cameras that follow you still, feels like something out of the future.

However, he believes that the setup will become commonplace within in a decade: "In 5 to 10 years, every room will have the ability to have native voice and video done in a really, really amazing way using large screens. Every room. It’s just going to happen. And we intend to be the company making it happen, basically", Trollope says.

This change is being driven by the consumer bringing prices down: "Because of the smartphone revolution the costs of sensors and small componentry is coming way down."

Trollope says that Cisco is aiming to clean up the current mess of video conferencing, as he sees it. There’s is a streamlined approach, without the endless cables and webcams: "Our idea is you take all that stuff away, that entire mess, and you put one thing in the room that’s custom built to work perfectly and that’s what we built."

Turning his fire towards Cisco’s rivals in this space, Trollope says: "There was a push by Microsoft for years to say "hey, you just put a latptop in every conference room, hook up an external webcam and a projector and you’re good to go. That is the biggest jury-rigged piece of crap you could possibly imagine, and it doesn’t work."

As well as aiming to create the conference room of the future, the plan is to link it to the phone in your pocket, namely through messaging app Spark. It’s a similar product to business messaging app Slack, but has full audio and visual capability too.

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Creating Spark took something of a cultural shift in the IT giant. "This is the only app that Cisco has ever built that is free and viral," says Trollope, (although some of the higher end features, such as some of the security tools, are paid for,) and it is the only Cisco product that the firm’s employees have not been mandated to use.

The idea was that if Cisco employees took up using it naturally, then IT teams in other firms woul see the benefits of colleagues using it, and pay Cisco to help them roll it out effectively and securely.

Cisco recently announced a mega partnership with Apple, and Trollope also says collaboration is one of the things that is part of the deal: "The big part of our relationship with Apple is this next generation experience. Apple is currently using Spark and deploying it internally as well as all our video gear."

Trollope also emphasises how security has been critical during the development of Spark. "Candidly, it’s what’s caused some of our features to move a little more slowly, because we’re being very very careful about security", he says. For example, Spark contains "Full encrypted content search with Cisco never seeing the data."

Businesses and workers are becoming increasingly mobile, and while the flexibility of this is obviously positive for firms, often the experience of communicating via teleconferencing tools is poor. Trollope’s team is trying to boost collaboration, improving the quality but bringing down the costs.

Lots of executives will no doubt hoping they succeed.

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