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Cisco Cius: Don't Count It Out, Yet

Some critics have written off the Cisco Cius, but I now have a sense for why Cisco feels its communications gadget doesn't have to beat the iPad to win.

The Cisco Cius is not going to beat the iPad--and that's okay with Cisco.

After getting a demo and briefing at a Cisco office just outside of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., I understand the target market for the Cisco Cius a lot better. Whether the Cius will capture that market, I don't know, but I do think it's premature to write Cisco off.

Cisco asked for equal time after I wrote an admiring column on the Avaya Flare unified communications client, which offers a clever way of using social media icons to set up phone and videoconferences. Avaya has created an iPhone version of the Flare software, with a Windows version on the way, but it first came to market as a desktop device meant to be used as a videoconferencing appliance with an 11.6-inch screen that integrates with your phone and other executive office gadgets. You can pull the Flare device out of its docking station, but it's not really meant to be something you would carry around with you. That led me to write that although it the Flare is based on Google's Android mobile operating system, as is the Cius, "unlike the Cisco Cius, it's not really meant to compete in the tablet computer market."

Cisco wanted to make it clear that the Cius will not be competing in the consumer tablet market, either, in the sense that you will never see Cius units for sale at Target, beside iPads and Android tablets for the mass market. They have promoted it all along as an enterprise device, although it's more of a tablet than the Flare device is, in the sense of being more mobile.

[ Learn why videoconferencing will become essential to business in 2012. ]

Avaya assumes, somewhat sensibly, that the best way to access the mobile tablet market where the iPad is so popular is to make the Flare software available on the iPad. Roberto De La Mora, a Cisco solutions marketing executive who oversees the family of IP communications devices that includes the Cius, said Cisco also acknowledges that it must support the consumer devices that are becoming more prevalent in enterprise settings.

"If they decide they want an iPad, iPhone, Samsung Galaxy, or whatever, we want to support them on the device they choose," De La Mora said. "But if they want a mobile device that is fully managed and secure, we believe the Cius is a better fit."

The Cius has the brains of a desktop video phone, in addition to being something you can carry around the office with you, and it aims to solve all the challenges of mobile device security and manageability that tend to give IT executives heart palpitations.

Because the Android operating system is open source, Cisco has been able to customize it, layering on security measures such as an encrypted file system, which means "everything that goes in or out of the device is encrypted by default," De La Mora said. "Android doesn't have the best reputation for security, so we had to fix that."

Cisco also operates its own AppHQ app store, featuring tablet applications it has validated as being enterprise-grade. By default, icons for both AppHQ and Google's broader Android Market are displayed on the Cius home screen, but an administrator can hide the Android Market and, if desired, create a "store within the store" on AppHQ featuring only the applications that particular company has approved for use.

Some mobile computing experts question whether an enterprise tablet can really compete with the desire of enterprise users to make a consumer tablet like the iPad part of their work life. Several IT publications have already ranked the Cius among the top 10 product failures of 2011, putting it in the same company with RIM's BlackBerry Playbook.

That's a little harsh.

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