Cisco exec sees Cius tablet as thin client hit

Companies, government IT shops may use the tablet for greater security and cost savings

LAS VEGAS -- Since it was announced on Tuesday, Cisco Systems Inc.'s Cius business tablet has provoked questions over how it will be used, especially when compared with the larger-screen iPad.

The Cius tablet from Cisco Systems on its docking station
The Cius tablet from Cisco Systems on its docking station.

Cisco is clearly targeting its traditional base of big enterprise IT shops and not the broader market that Apple Inc. is wooing with the iPad, judging from the comments of Cisco executives at the company's Cisco Live conference here.

In an interview, one of the tablet's principle designers provided more details on the Cius. He described it as having strong potential as a thin-client desktop device that could replace knowledge workers' desktop phones and laptop and desktop computers, while offering added video and videoconferencing functionality.

"Thin clients are still big, and lots of [enterprise] customers are really interested in that," said Barry O'Sullivan, senior vice president of Cisco's voice technology group, who was involved in the Cius design from the start, 18 months ago.

"We started by thinking about it first as ... a mobile video device, since customers said 'we love video,'" O'Sullivan said. "But there was another market transition [underway] and we wondered if this could be a thin client on the desktop as well."

O'Sullivan also revealed that Cisco will offer three different Cius docking stations. The largest dock will have a traditional phone handset with a cord on the side; it will support audio and have charging capabilities. The next largest model won't have a handset, but it will support audio and will have charging capabilities. The smallest one will have charging capabilities only. Pricing for each unit is expected to be less than $1,000, he said.

The Cius, which is expected to ship in the first quarter of 2011, will also be sold with a separate protective case that can be used in rugged settings such as warehouses. The case will also provide additional battery power.

O'Sullivan said added security features would make the Cius intriguing to IT managers, and the thin-client model might be more appealing to IT shops that want to lower costs and beef up security.

Thin clients don't have onboard applications; they use software that resides on a centralized server. Among other things, that setup makes it easier for the IT shop to lock down user devices for security purposes. With thin clients, the IT department can also limit the number of apps running on a user's machine, so the corporate network and servers don't get bogged down with unessential apps and data.

"There are already lots of thin clients out there," said O'Sullivan, noting that organizations in the financial services industry and the public sector have shown "a huge interest" in them. He said many large enterprises have come to Cisco in recent years asking for such a device.

With Cius thin clients, IT shops can also choose to use cloud-based applications instead of loading software onto on-premises servers, O'Sullivan said.

Asked if Cius users might be tempted to load movies and other media files onto the devices -- which have full-functioning seven-inch touchscreens, high-definition video capabilities and front- and rear-facing cameras -- O'Sullivan said that would depend on a corporation's policies. However, he did acknowledge that workers will want to take the Cius on road trips, and he conceded that they might be inclined to use the device to play games, watch movies or listen to music while traveling.

Asked if the device's multimedia capabilities make the Cius more like an iPad and contradict Cisco's positioning of it as a locked-down thin client, O'Sullivan said the Cius gives IT shops options because it can be used in a number of ways.

"Cius represents security and cost savings," he said. "But if an end user wants to add [multimedia], an IT might shop might want to allow them to do more with it."

O'Sullivan said the opportunity to deploy the Cius with the Android operating system was a big inspiration for Cisco. "If Android weren't on the market, we would have gone with Linux, but we wanted that developer community," he said.

Cisco won't set up its own online retail site for Cius applications, but the Android Market will carry Cius applications that developers build using a Cisco software developer kit. When it is released, the Cius will run the latest Android operating system, Version 2.2, also known as Froyo, he said.

Even though some analysts have wondered how popular the Cius will be next to the iPad, O'Sullivan said he has received nothing but positive feedback from Cisco's core customer base of enterprise IT workers, many thousands of whom were in attendance at Cisco Live, where the device was announced.

"The reaction from all the customers here has been amazing, with people saying they want to get one, others wanting to work with gaming companies on applications for it and some wanting the desktop virtualization," he said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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