Cisco Cius- The enterprise tablet

Cisco took the covers of its long awaited Cius tablet earlier this week, a full year after it was first announced. Cisco has finally released price and shipping date for it’s highest profile product since the launch of its ground braking UCS compute platform in March 2009.

At this point, comparisons with both the Apple iPad and business focused tablets from RIM and HP are inevitable, and straight away the differences are obvious.  Both Cisco and RIM share a common perspective that the ideal size for a business focused tablet is seven inches. HP tried, and most would say failed, the seven inch form factor with its Slate 500 tablet, before launching the 10 inch HP TouchPad. RIM’s seven inch Playbook launch was far from spectacular, and Apple’s Steve Jobs has been very vocal in his perspective that 10 inches is the right size and that he would never consider anything smaller. Given all that, Cisco must have some very good reasons for sticking with the seven-inch form factor, and it would appear that they have.

Cisco is clear that it does not see the Cius in direct competition with Apple’s iPad. Setting size aside, the Cius is being positioned as a serious business tool for use on campus by mobile professionals who need both a means of accessing applications and providing a mobile extension of their existing ‘desktop’ communication tools.  With that understood, the design philosophy behind the Cius starts to become clear.  The seven-inch was the result of a deliberate decision to make the Cius not just portable but pocket-able, and for many mobile professionals that may be enough for it to win out. The Cius will slip straight into the outside pocket of a doctor’s white coat, something that a 10″ device will never be able to do without a redesign of the clinician’s wardrobe, but at the same time it can be dropped it into its dock and deliver a full size 1080 DisplayPort output provides a high resolution full screen display.

Just as important for many professionals is that the Cius integrates with the Cisco Unified Communications Manager (UCM) and Cisco Telepresence system to provide face-to-face video-communications and conferencing.  Cisco’s goal here was to provide an experience that matches that of its existing desk bound systems and from my testing so far, it seems that Cisco’s engineers have delivered. Cisco offers the same 30-fps HD (720p) video encoding and decoding offered by it’s current desktop systems, and wireless communications availability permitting it is difficult to if someone is using a conventional desktop system or a Cius.  With stereo speakers mounted on the (lower) front bezel, the Cius is clearly optimized for use in landscape orientation. The video conferencing capabilities do much to explain why this would be high on Cisco’s design priorities. However, as with all other current generation tablets it includes a gyroscopic sensor to enable the screen and camera to adjust to whichever way it is held.

I had the opportunity to take a close look at a pre-production example in May. It appeared solidly built, with no obvious physically weaknesses, perhaps a little thicker than I might have preferred, but if anything lighter than I expected. The one thing that did give me cause for concern with the physical design is the large and conspicuously visible docking adapter on the lower bezel.  My concerns may be unfounded, but I would feel more comfortable if it had some sort of cover to protect it from getting clogged with whatever it is that people leave in their pockets.

The other big pointer to Cisco’s enterprise ambition is its enterprise app store and management software. I’ve covered Apple’s lack of commitment to the enterprise market in some depth in previous articles, and it looks very much as if the Cius development team see things the same way. To complement Cius and cater for the needs of enterprise IT, Cisco is introducing AppHQ, a new cloud based app store. Unlike the free for all that is Apple’s App Store, AppHQ can be configured by individual IT departments to create separate stores for their own employees. AppHQ can made available to employees in three ways:

  • An open portal to the full Android Market
  • Basic Cisco AppHQ with a mixture of Android apps and Cisco-validated business applications
  • Privatized Cisco AppHQ with only IT-selected apps

Cisco is clearly seeking to differentiate itself here by offering multiple tiers of access within AppHQ.  The free for all Android market is available for those who want it, but Cisco will also validate applications and offer them in a a separate category for customers seeking assurance that they are not putting any flaky piece of software on their Cius. The last category allow IT managers total control over what applications can be installed providing the same level of administrative control as a well managed desktop does today.  IT managers can also wipe individual apps from an employee’s Cius remotely, or wipe the entire device clean over the air. This capability is an absolute must for serious deployment of any tablet device and puts it head and shoulders above the iPad and other consumer-grade tablets. AppHQ also provides developers with tools and resources to create, test and market applications for Cius.

Another hint to the Cius’ enterprise credentials is clearly visible on the AppHQ home page where the remote display clients from Citrix, VMware and Wyse show up as the first three applications on the site. Cisco clearly believes in the importance of delivering the best possible integration between voice/video communications and desktop virtualization experience with Cius. While the UCM application is delivered via RDP, HDX or PCoIP, UCM traffic is sent direct rather than being embedded within the remote display protocol.  This ensures the optimum performance of voice and video communications and delivers a worthwhile bonus by bypassing the hosting server and maintaining the best possible application performance.

The Cius will be available on July 31st and will start at $750 for the Wi-Fi equipped tablet. Pricing for the docking station and for 3G ready devices have not yet been released.

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