LAS VEGAS Cisco Systems took its first big steps as a corporation into consumer digital media markets at the Consumer Electronics Show, claiming it would help ease the pain in managing home networks and Web services.
The company launched a home audio system and a media server from its expanded Linksys team. It also released business software from a new division that aims to simplify creating and running digital media services on the Web.
In many ways, the hardware products are similar to others from companies including Hewlett-Packard, NetGear, Sling Media, Sonus and others. Cisco execs claimed the products, available now, are significantly easier to install and use.
What's clear is Cisco's commitment to a corporate consumer thrust, leveraging a handful of acquisitions in the field including gateway maker Linksys.
“If you take away one thing from this event, know that we are really committed to the consumer market and we're putting the whole weight of the company behind it,” said Cisco chief executive John Chambers at a CES press conference where the products were released.
In the process, Cisco has been beefing up the engineering ranks of its Linksys group, especially in software. The group now has design teams in Denmark, Switzerland, Irvine and San Jose.
“Linksys had an ODM model, but now a lot of the engineering has been brought in house particularly for the user experience,” said Ned Hooper, senior vice president of corporate business development for Cisco who also acts as general manger of the company's new consumer group.
“I think it's less about the hardware than the software,” said William Diehl, senior director of product management, research and UI design for the consumer group. “It's easy to do products, but it's hard to do easy products,” said Diehl who joined Cisco two years ago when it was just starting to put together a team to design the products.
Specifically, Cisco rolled out a media storage hub that can hold two 2.5-inch drives of up to a terabyte each. The hub can automatically index and tag any media content on a home network. It also lets users access their content remotely from the Web.
Microsoft has released software to drive similar systems linked to Windows. HP was the first to release a product based on the code about a year ago.
“We didn't want to pay the Microsoft tax,” said one Cisco engineer.
Separately, the company released three products to play and distribute music around the home. A $299 player links a traditional stereo amplifier to a home net, a $499 director can act as a bookshelf stereo that sits on a home net and a $349 handheld controller manages the devices.
The Linux-based systems are available as a package today for $999. They use a Ralink 802.11g/n chip set and can link to any wired Ethernet link.
The devices use a distributed computing model for synchronizing content on systems on a home network, claiming it can handle such operations with a five microsecond latency to preserve audio fidelity.
The company plans to roll out a similar set of devices later this year for distributing video around the home over 802.11n. In addition, Cisco said it will license to other OEMs its Home Network Administration Protocol used by its new devices.
In tandem with the new hardware, Cisco's new media solutions group rolled out EOS, a software platform to manage how companies create and run online media and social networking services. The business software has no immediate links with the home products.
“There's no connection now but the goal is to make one,” said Dan Scheinman, general manager of the group.
“Our ambition is wide for EOS,” he added. “It should be the platform of record for media companies, enabling new media experiences and solving problems for media companies and consumers.”