A lot to like about Cisco's new Internet TV

Cisco's new Videoscape platform announced at CES is far from perfect, but is moving in the right direction.

UPDATED 01/10/11: There's a lot to like about Cisco's newly unveiled Internet TV platform, Videoscape. Cisco is in an increasingly crowded arena with its next-generation television experience, one that marries subscription TV with Web content, personal videos and social media. But because Cisco is device-agnostic -- and its customers are the service providers -- it is pitching a platform that could be a way out for the logjam occurring between providers (Netflix versus Comcast; Google TV versus Fox).

Curiously, Cisco's tablet Cius has been a no-show at CES. While all of the demos I've seen of Videoscape (press conference, the Digital Experience event, the private demo today) featured Cisco's high-end, beautiful-but-bandwidth-hog Umi home videoconferencing device in the role of television display, none included Cius. It's not even on display. The tablet role in is being played by the iPad.

The device was introduced in the summer, so this would be the first CES to show it off -- and goodness knows that tablet demos are the Big Thing here. A spokesperson told me that because Cius was aimed at business users, not consumers, they didn't bring it to show.

That's an interesting position, because Videoscape is aimed at service providers, not consumers. You can't go to Best Buy, buy a settop box, or TV with the service embedded and fire it up. It will only be able as branded services via ISPs. Methinks: Cius absence may have more to do with its current ability to compare to the many other tablets being showcased here.

As for Videoscape, this is a product more in line with Cisco's traditional business model. CEO John Chambers announced Videoscape on Wednesday at CES and I spent some time today seeing a demo and chatting about the new platform with Murali Nemani, Cisco's director of video solutions marketing. Right now, Videoscape is only available in Australia via Telstra, but Cisco promises that announcements of partnerships will be coming for U.S. markets within the next two months, Nemani said.

I've decided I like Videoscape, at least in concept, for a number of reasons:

Cisco promises there will be no trade-offs on content because of the device being used. All the television channels, all the premium channels, all the Web content will be available on any device that has the soft client installed. The soft client is available for PCs and Windows, iOS and Android and is promised for Windows Phone 7. Televisions will use a set-top box unless service providers can convince device makers to embed the technology directly into the units.

BUT ... Cisco has no current plans for a BlackBerry client, until/unless the service providers want to sync with BlackBerry. Also, what the service ACTUALLY is to those who buy it will be entirely in the hands of the service provider including what content will be offered or not.

I like that service providers get extra real estate for ads and if they use them correctly these ads could be more targeted and more useful to viewers ... like a personalized shopping channel that allows you to buy items immediately, perhaps even charged to your ISP bill or against a credit card on file. Ads don't interrupt the content but surround it.

BUT ... presence is shared with providers and it's not clear what privacy controls will be offered to the users to limit that data being shared with the ISP and/or the advertisers.

I like that Cisco is using Web standards like XMPP and I like the "Cisco Conductor" component. Conductor will help service providers authenticate the devices.

BUT ... at this point, authentication is more about protecting service providers than users -- ensuring that users can't get at content or features they don't pay for. Still device-level authentication is being built in and that's ultimately a good thing for everyone. The plus for users is that Cisco promises the video experience will be automated optimized for the device (screen size, bandwidth requirements, Flash vs. HTML5 and so on).

I like some of the underlying network problems Cisco is solving. For instance, with the set-top device, they are doing content caching on customer premises, improving the quality of video, Cisco promises. This differs from an Akamai or Limelight that cache content at the peering point, Nemani said.

Cisco is cagey over questions about expected pricing, as each individual service provider will be on their own to figure it out. Testra apparently offers a tiered price that includes some Videoscape features in add-ons with various packages they offer.

Here's a look, via the demo Cisco gave me at CES.

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