CES: Cisco Preps Home Invasion

LAS VEGAS -- Consumer Electronics Show (CES) -- In case there was any doubt, Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) very much wants to be the backbone of the next generation of networked homes. CEO John Chambers laid out a grandiose vision of his company's consumer-market ambitions in today's keynote speech at the Consumer Electronics Show. Lacking any product introductions, the keynote was mainly a pitch for Cisco's place in the home, where it faces rivals like fellow keynoter Bill Gates of Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT). (See CES: Gates Gripes About Connections.)

The speech relied on classic Cisco themes, borrowing chunks from Chambers's recent speeches. But for CES, Chambers emphasized the company's new passion (and ad campaign) for what it calls the "human network," which -- to put it in a vaguely creepy way -- follows you around, knows what you're doing, and lets you subscribe to people instead of magazines. "It's the next wave of the Internet revolution," Chambers claimed. Of course, the vision is built on Cisco's idea that everything is going IP, meaning, to quote Chambers's latest favorite catch phrase, "the network becomes a platform." Chambers was short on details of how the company will get there, although he did mention that more acquisitions are likely, and he promised a roadmap update should he get to talk at CES next year. He claimed Cisco is at the start of its usual cycle that ends with the company becoming No. 1 or 2 in multiple product segments -- just as it did in the enterprise and carrier markets.

The firm already has a significant residential foothold through its Linksys operation, which is the No. 1 provider of wireless LAN routers for small and in-home offices in the global market. Chambers claims Cisco already has "81 million devices in the consumer environment."

But Chambers stressed that Cisco's home invasion will be "device agnostic," based on open standards. "Not only are we Switzerland that most people trust," he quipped in another slightly creepy formulation. "We are Switzerland with a very powerful army."

Knowing his audience, Chambers steered the talk away from the complex network/platform slides Cisco loves to parade. At one point, he put up one such slide -- getting excited to the point of breaking his characteristic friendly patter as he talked about intelligence in the network -- then throttled down abruptly. "This isn't what a consumer experience is about. In fact, this is the reason it's growing so slowly, isn't it? It is complex. We're just doing child's play today."

Cisco plans to focus on making the home network easy, Chambers said. Demos focused on the criss-crossing of devices, media, and messages, showing how the whole process is hidden from the consumer.

One demo involved friends sharing baseball replays taken off the Web while videoconferencing on their HDTV screens. After they were done, the network showed an ad offering tickets to the Oakland Athletics, Chambers's new favorite team. The guys bought tickets by clicking on the screen, and the network sent the virtual tickets to each of their cellphones, which beeped accordingly upon receiving the files.

More generally, Chambers predicted the rise of a home network that will:
  • Handle installation of newly connected devices,
  • Determine what type of content is being delivered by the device,
  • Hand off content, mid-stream, from device to device as commanded by the user, and
  • Support voice, video, and data over multiple connections.

Chambers likened the plan to what Cisco has done for the enterprise network and is trying to do for service providers, the key being to not force consumers to understand what's happening in the network. "[It] will occur not just in the home, but in the consumer market, where it won't be about these various technology terms -- the routers and the switches, and security and wireless and storage coming together."

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung, and Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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