Is the principal tool you use for inter-office communication still Microsoft Outlook? A number of companies, including Microsoft, IBM, Unify (formerly part of Siemens), Google, and Salesforce all have a stake in replacing it with a service that connects you with your colleagues using live text and videoconferencing.

Cisco is also among this group — and arguably has the most to gain. It made significant investments in networking infrastructure gear and videoconferencing appliances. It's also the parent company of meeting facilitator service WebEx.

So the company’s announcement today that it is not converging its business communications platforms into one, at least for now, is perplexing.

The Other WebEx

Cisco developed a collaboration tool as “Project Squared” under the WebEx domain. For all intents and purposes, it looked like a new centralized meeting and collaboration center for WebEx.

Today it is being rebranded as Cisco Spark.

“In the longer term, we want to do some simplification of branding,” Ross Daniels, Cisco’s senior director of marketing, told CMSWire. “In the short term, we wanted to make sure we had a good and evocative name for the service that we launched as ‘Project Squared.’”

Certainly Spark is a good and evocative name for services that become quite popular and well-liked, as service providers who produce what the big data space calls “Spark” are already well aware.

In this case, Cisco Spark is a centralized communications console that lets enterprises set up virtual meeting rooms at will. On the back end, Cisco designed Spark to adapt itself to whatever unified communications tools and codecs that enterprises may already have in place, even if they haven’t invested in UC yet.

How 'Squared' Sparked

Cisco began distributing a public beta of its Project Squared front-end tool last November to seed a charter base of free users.

It was one step among several begun by Cisco one year ago to simplify its approach to videoconferencing (VC). Its approach includes production of sophisticated two-way screens for conference rooms, the latest of which carries an MSRP price tag of $80,000.

Cisco's goal is to get users of its VC tools and others as well to share in a network scheme that includes telecommuters and remote users.

Thumbnail image for 150314 Project Squared.jpg

The new Cisco Spark adopts the chat stream format, which is familiar to users of smartphones and software such as Microsoft Yammer and Salesforce Chatter.

But it’s presented in a way intended to upend the use of e-mail — and with it, programs such as Microsoft Outlook — for inter-office communication.

Users can create Spark virtual meeting rooms instantly. The rooms have easily sharable URLs. Participants can click on the URL, sign in and go.

But it’s organized in a way that will make Outlook 2013 users feel at home.

The left column contains a list of “rooms” where colleagues can meet at any time. (The people who meet there define a room.) Materials such as files shared between these people, appear in the right column. And in the center is a message stream, which may as well be inter-office e-mail.

Learning Opportunities

Testers of Project Squared will notice Cisco added some new features to Spark, some by customer demand.

For instance, calendars stored on mobile devices will have better integration with Spark, enabling users who set up meetings on their phones to immediately provision a Spark room with a single click.

Business phone users whose devices link to their corporate Active Directory can share their identities, with permission, to mobile contacts at other companies with similar AD links.

And now with Spark, rooms can be “locked” by participants, blocking some past participants.

Unity vs. Duality

Most users concur that the tool formerly known as Project Squared is easier to use than WebEx.

WebEx uses Cisco’s back-end infrastructure and is competitive with all of Microsoft’s efforts to date to integrate Outlook and Skype — efforts that have arguably yielded little results anyway.

But as Cisco’s Daniels told us, for now, the distinction between WebEx and Spark will continue. That's true in spite of Cisco CEO John Chambers’ prediction last November that WebEx will attain 40 percent market share in the UC space.

“We view these tools [as] very complementary,” said Daniels. “Clearly there’s some light conferencing capabilities within Project Squared [Spark], whereas there’s a much richer set of conferencing capabilities within WebEx.”

You can see that distinction in the pricing model. While Cisco will offer a free version of Spark for meetings of up to three people, the paid subscription model (pricing to be announced) will support meetings of no more than eight up to 25, as a Cisco spokesperson clarified Tuesday.

Spark is an application on Cisco’s existing Collaboration Cloud. So Cisco could potentially integrate Spark collaboration functionality into other platforms — theoretically, with Salesforce. Daniels went so far as to acknowledge the use case was certainly there.

Yet with Microsoft aligning its Lync and Skype brands around one business system, and with competitors like Unify demonstrating quite obviously that they don’t need to, it will be interesting to see how long Cisco can maintain this duality for a platform that may be already at a make-or-break point in its evolution.