This syndicated post originally appeared at No Jitter - Recent posts by Zeus Kerravala.

Despite the hype around virtual working, people
still do meet in physical spaces to get stuff done.

Everyone loves a good rivalry. Red Sox vs. Yankees, Kirk vs. Khan, Lauren Conrad vs. Heidi Pratt nee Montag (yes, I love The Hills), Trump vs. Clinton… and, in unified communications, Microsoft vs. Cisco. These two UC leaders have been battling it out for years, giving rise to raging debates over which has the better voice, desktop, cloud, and mobile strategy.

While I’m sure the fighting will soon enough center on team collaboration and virtual meeting spaces — Cisco Spark vs. Microsoft Teams — more immediately it’ll be about the physical meeting space. Despite the hype around virtual working, the rise of millennials, and other similar trends, the fact remains that people still do meet in physical spaces to get stuff done. Also, businesses are building out a wider variety of places to meet. They’ve got their large boardroom-style rooms, as well as their huddle rooms, medium-sized conference rooms, open spaces, and almost any other kind of configuration imaginable. Truth be told, anywhere people meet is a meeting space.

Outfitting meeting rooms to create a “flawless” experience has always been and continues to be a significant challenge. Meeting spaces generally require some combination of whiteboard, audio bridge, video conferencing system, content- sharing capability, a display, and maybe some other kind of specialized tool. Typically, few or sometimes none of these tools are integrated — which is why my research shows that about 15 minutes of every meeting are wasted on trying to connect and in asking remote participants to identify themselves… “Who just joined the bridge?” Participants often waste additional time in reviewing meeting notes, figuring out which version of the TPS Report is the most current, taking pictures of whiteboards, and aggregating notes. With all the “stuff” that needs to be done before, during, and after meetings, it’s amazing there’s any time left for the meeting itself.

Thinking about how physical spaces should evolve requires shedding any thought of the status quo and imagining the world of the impossible. How should physical meetings work? What’s the utopian scenario of a “flawless experience?” It’s certainly more than just having my audio and video bridge tied together.

Factoring in Flawlessness

A flawless meeting is one in which no one has to think about anything and people can just start doing work. At a minimum, a flawless meeting should include the following concepts:

  • All content pre-populated into a single location with version controls
  • Automated discovery of content across all enterprise systems
  • Easy-to-use content sharing system that allows multiple people to share content simultaneously from any device
  • Audio and video systems instantly invoked when meeting members enter room
  • Remote participants have the exact same experience as those participating in person
  • Ad hoc content automatically captured and shared with participants
  • Ability to “roll back” shared information. Think of being able to go back to previous versions of a whiteboard
  • Everyone has a view of everyone else without the use of manual camera manipulation
  • Only voices are transmitted across the audio stream, not sounds like shuffling paper or typing
  • Easy connectivity to individuals inside and outside the company

I’m sure there are other criteria, but these are the ones off the top of my head. Cisco and Microsoft have “talked the talk” of meeting spaces, each in its own way complete with its own pros and cons. Here’s how I think they compare.

The Microsoft Way

Microsoft has a dual approach to delivering meeting room technology. Its own hardware, Surface Hub, is a fully integrated display available in 55″ and 84″ models. Given these Surface Hub models retail for the fairly steep prices of $8,999 and $21,999, respectively, their primary appeal will be to large enterprises that want to standardize on all things Microsoft.

Microsoft also has its Skype Room Systems (SRS) (formerly known as Project Rigel) in which customers can buy a turnkey solution from Crestron, Polycom, or Logitech. Microsoft developed very detailed specifications for SRS so customers would have a simple and identical experience as they do for Skype for Business regardless of which solution is chosen. I believe the lowest price point for SRS is just under $1,000, with the high end being about $2,500.

The multivendor, validated design of SRS may very well be its strength and weakness. It meets the goal of having customers get a consistent experience from vendor to vendor, but I question whether that’s really the best thing. Why should a Polycom SRS give an identical experience to Logitech or Crestron? This leaves the vendors in the unenviable position of competing largely on price instead of features (for more perspective, read yesterday’s post, “Skype for Business Rooms: the Rigel Effect & Logitech’s SmartDock“).

For example, Polycom has a number of unique features such as acoustic fence and auto-mute. Why shouldn’t a customer that’s using a Polycom SRS get the benefit of Polycom innovation? I think the SRS guidelines should be a minimum standard and then the vendors should be free to add features above and beyond that. This lets each vendor be aggressive with feature innovation rather than trying to optimize around cost.

Cisco’s Strategy

Cisco, as one might expect, has taken a different approach to room systems by building a fully integrated hardware-software-cloud room solution based on the Spark platform. Those familiar with Spark probably know it as the increasingly popular team collaboration tool but it has become so much more than that. Think of Spark the client as an app that runs on the Spark cloud. Spark app is an easy-to-use, fully integrated application that enables workers to collaborate effectively through the use of virtual meetings. Think of Cisco’s meeting room strategy as accomplishing a similar goal but when conducting physical meetings.

The ultimate goal is to have every piece of equipment, from whiteboards to video systems to the audio bridge, instantly turn on when an individual or team enters the room — and all the right content would load as well, to allow work to begin immediately. Through its Digital Ceiling initiative, Cisco can extend that vision to environmental systems and turn lights on, lower the air conditioning, and control other facilities that are part of the physical space. Cisco has a long way to go before it realizes this vision fully, but between the innovation the company is doing in the collaboration and Internet of Things groups, it appears to be well on its way there.

The fully integrated cloud plus hardware plus software approach gives Cisco its advantage, but that’s predicated on customers willing to accept a single-vendor solution. Some may be fine with this, but it will be interesting to see how Cisco addresses customers that have already spent a bunch of money on other vendor solutions.

Sideline View

There’s no right answer here, but Cisco’s approach has the benefit of letting it move faster because it controls the experience. To combat this, Microsoft should open up SRS and let its ecosystem partners build innovative features on top of the base foundation. This way it can capitalize on its own innovation plus the cool things its partners are doing.

Should be an exciting battle to watch in 2017 and beyond.

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Zeus Kerravala

Zeus Kerravala is the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research. Kerravala provides a mix of tactical advice to help his clients in the current business climate and long term strategic advice.
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