Hands on with the Android tablet "Cius" that Cisco announced at Cisco Live

I had a chance to briefly hold a non-functional Cisco Cius at the World of Solutions vendor area at Cisco Live! and briefly speak to Cisco about the features it's offering.

Cisco announced its Android-based tablet device geared towards collaboration with front-facing video support at 720p, a rear camera, and all of the things Android brings to the table such as mail, browsing, instant messaging, etc.

Cisco has done a little bit more than put some components together and loaded Android on it, especially introducing its SDK and API to allow Android app developers to tie into their system, allowing external applications to take advantage of Cisco's collaboration-related infrastructure components.

Cius Phones

I got to hold a prototype device for a couple of minutes in Cisco's World of Solutions center here at Cisco Live in Las Vegas, and while it was compact and light, it certainly didn't have that polished feel of metal like the iPad. Unlike every article I've seen so far, I won't continue to compare iOS and Android, or completely focus on comparing iPad vs Cius. While Apple could certainly add cameras to their device and pull some of this off, Cisco is clearly not quite focusing on the mass consumers yet, not at a price of "Under $1,000."

The device has 802.11a/b/g/n, a 5-megapixel camera to the rear that can stream VGA-quality video and still snapshots (the front mounted picture does 720p video at 30fps), and a 7" widescreen SVGA touch display. The device claims 8 hours of battery life under "normal conditions", whatever that means. The device is Atom-based with a 1.6GHz processor and 32 gigs of onboard flash. You can read more about the proposed use cases for this and the details of the device here.

The "HD Soundstation" (aka the dock) for the unit makes it a bit more powerful, supporting Bluetooth 3.0, USB 2.0, external monitor, 10/100/1000 Ethernet, and high-definition audio through integrated HD speakers. I'm unclear exactly what an "HD" speaker is, maybe someone can educate me on that, or maybe it just means expensive speaker.

I'm still unclear what the total cost of ownership of this device is.  Can you buy the device, send one to your grandmother, and be done with it? I'm going to guess it's not peer-to-peer like Skype, and requires Cisco's backend infrastructure. Perhaps they'll have a cloud-based offering where home users and very small businesses don't have to own anything but the end device.

Cisco does seem to be trying to align themselves to provide virtualized access to desktops with the device, though I still find that difficult on a 7" screen. I suppose it would be ok today for basic things. Perhaps John Chambers' vision is content in the future that is well formatted for smaller screens and access methods that make sense on it, reducing the need for "big" laptops and desktops, or perhaps he just sees the docking station with the big monitor and keyboard still, but a device you can walk away from your desk with. (Like the OQO tried to do, but generally failed.)

I want to see a lot more video integration and video applications in life, and things like FaceTime, Skype, Cisco's Telepresence, HP's Halo, and all things video, should be coming faster to the consumer. I like the fact that this device is Android-based and not something proprietary, and I think short of making it Linux-based, there weren't many other options, as clearly any sort of Windows mobile platform is a failure just waiting to happen, especially if you want a lot of developers to get in bed with you and work on enhancing your product offering.

While the Keynote presentation by John Chambers showed the use case of the Cius rather poorly - with a choice to try and do a live video chat with someone on a research vessel across the world, over a satellite uplink - the idea was right, but it certainly didn't show a quality experience where you could understand what people were saying very well. They did make a landline call on it as well that sounded better, but didn't do full-screen video, they had a WebEx-like interface with small face boxes on it. The demos of Cius weren't fully operational, and the one I got to hold didn't even power on (I am not a Cisco Live press member, so perhaps press members got to use more completed prototypes).

With that said, there a few details I'd like to see more public, starting with what is the minimum infrastructure required to fully utilize the Cius to its currently marketed potential.  What type of touch screen is in use, and how responsive is it? What does Cisco consider "normal use" for 8 hours of battery life? What is their 4G solution they said it had, but is coming later. A different model, a USB stick, or a replaceable chip?

For customers that are already running Cisco infrastructure and are on Cisco's track with collaboration and such, this device will probably fit right in. The fact that it can VPN in as well may be perfect. Perhaps for those folks who used to be given an ASA and Wired phone to telework, will just be given a Cius now and that's all they need. Perhaps one of Cisco's customer trials this fall will be their own IT division, as it often is, and I understand they are also one of Cisco's most painful/squeaky customers to deal with.

With that said, I am all for cutting down on devices. Hopefully this device along with the competitor devices will drive us toward someday having something that:

  • Acts as my cell phone (I wish my iPad supported that, since its usually in my backpack anyhow.. Bluetooth ear piece anyone?)
  • Has a large format tablet style (or a small cell phone with a projector built in and cold fusion power..)
  • Has some kind of Ultra-wide band video stream ability over short range to project maps/music/etc on a dumb screen in my car (Instead of paying $2000 for an integrated nav package, just give me a big stupid touch screen that lets my mobile device display to it wirelessly)
  • Has remote desktop ability to some powerful machine in a cloud somewhere that can maintain my SSH sessions, web sessions, fat applications, etc.
  • Doesn't require some expensive proprietary server software/hardware (Hello RIM)
  • Has an open operating system that anyone can develop for and allows you to develop outside of their "market" or "Store"
  • Interoperates with other technologies via standards based protocols. In the case of video, let me talk to an iPhone user with video, an HP Halo user, a Skype user, etc.  The industry has a ways to come on video integration.
  • Doesn't come packaged with garbage you can't remove without rooting (Thanks Verizon/HTC for including Cequint's trash Caller ID app with popup "please pay us a monthly fee to look up area codes in a publicly available flat file, because the patent office was dumb enough to give us a patent on it" on the HTC Incredible) [Yes, this is a rant I will keep echoing]
  • Quality applications. Application as polished as the hundreds that are found in iOS. Android does have a way to go on this. While there are a few good applications for Android, there seems to be an endless supply of beautiful applications available for iOS. Compare some from the same developers even, take a look at Gameloft's "Uno" on an iPhone 3gs or 4 and then compare against a high quality android phone like the Evo or Incredible. The iPhone is very smooth, very slick, and polished. I know that's just one example, but as a long time user of both platforms, I feel iOS applications currently have a better selection and look better. While I know I said I wouldn't compare the two the entire article,  it is a point I wanted to make, I want that type of thing on a phone, and I believe Android will catch up.
  • Plus just about everything current model phones can do :)

The device looks nice, I really hope it gets widely adopted and works well, and I hope Cisco finds a way to get it into the hands of people who don't want to own any supporting infrastructure and just want to buy the devices. I really hope it comes down in price and gets a consumer offering, instead of something like Linksys coming out with some hack software that uses a Flip Video connected to a Linksys router and some Win32 application to project video, that doesn't integrate well, and is far too complicated for non-technical people to use.

Will Cisco be saying "3,000,000 units sold" of the Cius within a few months of it being released, like one of the competitors recently did? Nope. Did they expect to? Probably not with how they are positioning it today.

Some of you that want to have one at home but Cisco doesn't work out for you, maybe you should get an Atom based Asus 1005PR, which also has 720p video, 10" screen, 802.11n, 11 hour battery, and a lot of other nice features, for about $400. Run Linux, or Win7 + Skype or other video software of choice..  It won't be fully integrated, but it'll be small and powerful.. Will be a stop gap until things like the iPad or Cius are targeting home user video and collaboration.

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