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A New Blueprint for Cisco


Cordell Ratzlaff wants to expand the tech giant's reach by designing products customers can love

Cordell Ratzlaff knows firsthand how top-notch product design comes to be. After all, he once worked for Apple (AAPL) and Steve Jobs, heading up the group that created the look and feel of the Macintosh operating system. But when Ratzlaff arrived at Cisco Systems (CSCO) a year ago, he found that instead of a design czar, the company had product-requirement specs. These dreary documents, crafted by engineers and marketers, tend to get crammed with countless features, with little attention paid to how the product will get used. Only at the last minute are industrial designers brought in to make an item user-friendly. Complains Ratzlaff: "It's a 200-page document that nobody reads, but everyone spends four months arguing about. It's like hiring the architect while the cement truck is idling outside."

Now, Ratzlaff, 47, Cisco's director of user experience, hopes to borrow a page from his old employer. He and his dozen-or-so staffers have created a blueprint for how Cisco's products should work together for customers. With the support of CEO John Chambers and other top brass, they are trying to impose it on the San Jose company.

Their degree of success will help determine whether Cisco can reach beyond the business of selling routers and other basic networking gear, an area it dominates, into faster-growing markets for products that make use of those networks. "Cisco is respected for their technology and for their financial success, but nobody really knows what they do," says Hartmut Esslinger, founder of consultancy frog design.

In recent years, Cisco has rolled out home networking gear, office phones, security cameras, Web conferencing services, and lifelike TelePresence videoconferencing systems. Don't look for it to come out with a basic cell phone or music player. But Cisco will try to beat Apple, Nokia (NOK), or Sony (SNE) into new markets. Its Linksys unit, for instance, sells home phones and Webcams, and Cisco eventually wants to sell a version of TelePresence to families.

Cisco also could play a huge role in creating products and software to make all sorts of Net-connected devices talk to each other. That might mean zapping a movie, bought using Cisco's Scientific Atlanta TV-set-top box, from a living room to your daughter's college PC. Or wirelessly moving photos from a camping trip to your outdoorsy friends on a social networking site. Says RelevantC Business Group consultant Ed Lewis: "The multibillion-dollar opportunity is if they can be the bridge that makes navigating between all these devices as simple as turning on your TV. If they do that, it's a home run."

BLANK SLATE

Ratzlaff comes across as far too calm to be a revolutionary-neither as way-hip as many product designers nor as geeky as the average Cisco engineer. After leaving Apple in 1999, Ratzlaff wound up at frog design. He says he later passed up design jobs at Google (GOOG) and at Apple's online store because he thought he could have more influence at Cisco. There, he found a blank slate. A half-decade ago, for instance, Cisco launched a line of office phones that took advantage of its pioneering work in cheap Internet telephony. But some customers found them way too complicated. Customers such as Merrill Lynch (MER) canceled or delayed some orders until Cisco could make the phones less mystifying. "We want our products to evoke a strong emotion--but hopefully not anger," deadpans Senior Vice-President Don Proctor, who hired Ratzlaff.

Technically, Ratzlaff works for that same phone unit. But he says Chambers has told him he wants the new design process to take hold throughout Cisco. Earlier this year, Ratzlaff canceled the release of a software upgrade that would let phone users choose their ringtones and wallpaper, but whose interface seemed designed more for a network administrator than a regular person. "We wanted to send a message that Cisco will no longer ship a product just because it's time to ship," Ratzlaff says.

Right now, consumer products account for a small slice--about 10%--of Cisco's $35 billion annual sales. And changing its engineer-centric development process won't be easy. Ratzlaff's crusade aims straight for the heart of Cisco's power base, the midlevel managers who cram those features into new products. "The question isn't whether they can build a good consumer product," says a rival CEO, who asked not to be named. "It's whether they'd know a good product if it bit them."

One of the first tests will come early next year when Cisco rolls out an upgrade of its newly acquired WebEx desktop videoconferencing system. The company wants office workers to think of the WebEx site as more than a place to set up and conduct a Web conference; it can also track the documents, e-mails, and instant messages that are connected to a specific project. In his frequent pitches to Cisco units and outside analysts, Ratzlaff talks as well about "dusting," a term meant to describe a finger-flick movement that might someday allow customers to move between devices--taking, say, an audio-only cell conversation to the big screen of a TelePresence system.

Hey, it ain't the iPhone. But getting communications tools to work together without hassles would be pretty cool, too.

Burrows is a senior writer for BusinessWeek, based in Silicon Valley.

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