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Cisco's Bid To Remake the Net for the Video Age


Cisco Systems has dominated its markets for the past fifteen years. But compared with the other great tech companies, the company has always seemed to be more of a beneficiary of mega-trends, than a creator of them. IBM created the computer industry in its image in the 1960s and 1970s. Microsoft and Intel drove the PC revolution in the 1980s and 1990s. Google is leading the way into the cloud computing era. But Cisco? Whether fair or not, the general impression is that it was in the right place at the right time, as the top maker of basic networking gear just as the Net Economy was exploding.

Now, Cisco wants to put its stamp on the next epoch of the Net’s development, with a concept it calls the “MediaNet.” The idea is to meld together a range of technologies and services that will make the Net far better at handling video and other rich media. For many people, video is kind of sideshow on the Net—a medium for watching the occasional YouTube video before getting back to real work. But MediaNet “will make video the natural language of the Internet,” says Cisco senior vice president of emerging technologies Marthin De Beer. “We think this will be as big or bigger than the World Wide Web. This is Web 3.0 we’re talking about here.”

At a high level, MediaNet is a powerful, and necessary, idea. One element in a range of announcements today is a new study that predicts a six-fold increase in Net traffic by 2012—by which time 90% of the bits will be for video rather than the text and images the Web was initially designed for. Of course, Cisco has every reason to set such expectations, since video is a bandwidth hog that could keep the company on a steep growth path for many years to come. (Interestingly, Cisco thinks the vast majority of this video will be of the professional type, rather than user-generated media. By then, Cisco believes Hollywood and other professional content creators will have embraced IP as a more efficient means to reach the world’s consumers, whether delivered straight over the Net to your PC or via your cable or phone carrier's IPTV service).

So what will the MediaNet do? For starters, it will enable the Net to bear the burden of this increased video load. (Here's a CNET piece with their view of the initiative.) But the company also feels video can be delivered in far more useful, entertaining ways. Just as Cisco has built aspects of security, VoIP and other technologies right into its basic networking products, it wants to do the same with promising new technologies such as video search. That way, it would be far easier to not only find a particular video clip (say, of Obama’s inauguration address), but actually find the few seconds you’re interested in (say, Obama’s comments about the Detroit bail-out). Companies would be able to do the same with in-house video content--including, if Cisco has its way, of hours of videoconferencing sessions you're company will be having using its tele-presence systems.

Here's another key part of the vision: Cisco says Moore’s Law has progressed to the point that it can now solve the incompatibility problems that have plagued the Net video world. One job of a new product announced today called the Media Experience Engine will be to automatically handle conversions between data formats, screen sizes and device sizes. That way, a video shot on a Flip video camera would be adjusted within milliseconds to look as good as possible on a 50-inch LCD. Or an HD broadcast of this week's Bears game could be compressed and resized for quick viewing on an iPhone while you're in the cab from the airport. “Everyone is going to have to buy a lot more bandwidth [as the amount of video on the Net increases]," says De Beer. “But the MediaNet answers a different question: how do we make video pervasive and useful, to anyone on any device.” He even foresees the day when businessman from different lands could have videoconferences with instantaneous language translation.

It’s all very sweeping and sexy, which is what makes me skeptical. For now, MediaNet seems to be an overly-broad marketing initiative, large enough to include pretty much any video-related product the company chooses to sell (or acquire; here's a good New York Times piece on new video search offerings). Also, I wonder how Cisco will garner industry support, for a plan that would clearly enhance the company's already dominant position in a host of markets.

And yet that same breadth of influence is why MediaNet just might give Cisco the thought leadership it covets. As the dominant networking provider across all major segments, it has a say over how a movie studio distributes its flicks via the Net; over the wired and wireless networks the phone and cable companies use to get them to their destination; and over the in-home gear consumers will use to receive and watch those movies. As such, Cisco is the only company that can influence the entire online video ecoystem. “Cisco was the inventor of the Internet from a router point of view, and we will be very involved in building the next phase of the Internet and the next generation of Internet experiences,” says De Beer.

So get ready to hear a lot more about the MediaNet, starting with CEO John Chambers’ comments at its annual meeting with Wall Street analysts on Dec. 9. But what’s your hunch? Will this MediaNet idea help Cisco upgrade its reputation from the Internet's top plumber, to one of its key architects? Or will MediaNet be forgotten a year from now--just one more breathless marketing campaign that failed to find traction?


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