Lots of companies have been rumored to be working on Android tablets this spring in the the wake of the iPad launch, but Cisco became the first big player to officially announce an enterprise Android tablet on Tuesday.

The product is called the Cisco Cius (as in “see us”) and it offers a much different take on the tablet than either the iPad or the Tablet PCs that we saw from Microsoft and its hardware partners in the past decade. Cisco has very little experience or expertise building consumer electronics or computing devices, so this is uncharted territory. And, judging by the design of Cius, it shows.

As you can see in the photo below of the Cius in its desk phone docking station, Cisco has built the product to be a companion to its enterprise VoIP, video, and collaboration services.

Contacts-based UI

The Cius is a 7-inch touchscreen tablet like the iPad, but that’s where the similarities end. Cisco describes it as “a lightweight portable business computing tablet offered with an optional HD audio station equipped with a telephone handset speakerphone, HD DisplayPort and USB ports.”

Cisco senior vice president Tony Bates said, “Cisco Cius epitomizes how the network is changing the way we live, work, learn and play. This platform can transform how healthcare professionals advance patient care; how retailers deliver service experiences to consumers, or how universities deliver world-class education to their students. Best of all, Cisco Cius offers IT functions a way to dramatically lower the cost-per-user of provisioning those new experiences.”

While the device is powered by the Android OS, Cisco envisions workers using the tablet in a virtual desktop environment in the enterprise. Cisco has developed its own custom user interface (see below) that is built around communication with the contacts in your corporate directory via voice calling, video calling, instant messaging, and online meetings.

What’s inside

Here are some of details and technical specs of the Cius:

  • Supports Cisco enterprise collaboration technologies: Cisco WebEx Connect, Cisco WebEx Meeting Center, Cisco Presence, Cisco Quad (enterprise collaboration), and Cisco Show and Share
  • Software will include “email, messaging, [Web] browsing, and the ability to produce, edit and share content stored locally or centrally in the cloud,” according to Cisco
  • 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi; 3G cellular services; 4G services available in future; Bluetooth; Micro-USB
  • Built in Cisco AnyConnect VPN
  • Front-facing camera does 720p HD video at up to 30 frames per second
  • 5MP rear-facing camera transmits streaming VGA video and captures still images
  • Full Cisco telepresence interoperability, as well as HD video streaming and multi-party conferencing
  • Eight hours of battery life; removable battery
  • Accelerometer for viewing in landscape or portrait mode
  • Customer trials of Cius begin in Q3 2010; general availability in Q1 2011

Sanity check

There are several aspects of the Cisco Cius that leave me scratching my head.

First and foremost, I’m not sure why would Cisco want to build its enterprise tablet around the concept of mobile video conferencing. The most compelling aspect of mobile video conferencing is for a traveler who wants to connect and share something with a significant other. For day-to-day work, video calling just isn’t something most workers want and need.

And, while Cisco telepresence is a terrific feature for reducing corporate travel and enhancing dispersed meetings, it’s really only useful from conference room to conference room. Adding in mobile users could actually interfere with the experience.

The other thing that confuses me is why Cisco built the UI around contact apps rather than productivity apps. If Cisco really intends for this to be a PC replacement (which is what the company is touting) then it needs to be about getting work done.

The only types of workers who could benefit from the contacts-based experience are the ones who spend their whole day in meetings, such as project managers and middle managers (and mostly ones who have to regularly collaborate with people in other offices). And, even those have to be able to update planning documents, spreadsheets, and Gantt charts. Can they do it efficiently on this device? I’m not convinced.

That said, there’s one aspect of the Cius that could make it very appealing in the enterprise. The always-on connectivity of 3G (and eventually 4G) mobile data services combined with Cisco’s built-in VPN software and a virtual desktop infrastructure could provide highly mobile (desk-less) workers with an instant-on device that has secure connectivity to all of their corporate apps and data from virtually anywhere.

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