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Cisco Appliance Makes Play for Business Mobility

Managing wireless networks and supporting various smartphone devices are increasing pain points that Cisco Systems (NASDAQ: CSCO) believes it can ease with the 3300 Series Mobility Services Engine (MSE), a new mobile platform appliance that promises efficient network administration and greater business collaboration.

Due to ship in June, the MSE not only centralizes management of wireless networks, mobile devices and applications but also provides an open API development environment for partners to build new services that can be layered on networking gear.

"This is a continuation of our heritage as we're aiming to simplify communications and enhance collaboration. We're redefining the concept of business mobility," Chris Kozup, senior manager, Cisco Mobility Solutions, told InternetNews.com.

Cisco's foray into the mobility space isn't surprising given enterprise dependence on mobile devices and the move toward mobile unified communications that can pull voice, data, presence and messaging technologies into one system.

Worldwide mobile phone sales topped 1.15 billion last year, according to research firm IDC (NYSE: IDC), while Gartner (NYSE: IT) analysts report smartphones are expected to outsell laptops this year. IDC also forecasts an estimated 304 million smartphones in use by 2011.

Clearly a savvy market move to grab traction with carriers and handset makers enjoying the riches tied to devices and applications, Cisco's strategy also illustrates the vital role mobile applications play in making mobile unified communications succeed.

"This is what I would call the first step in defining how all Cisco's recent acquisitions and its existing business come together to form a mobility strategy," Maribel Lopez, CEO and founder, Lopez Research, told InternetNews.com.

"No single company dominates the definition of mobility," she added. "Cisco has the opportunity to set the tone of the dialogue."

And that's exactly what Cisco aims to do. While acknowledging the MSE is a "good thing for Cisco," Kozup stressed the appliance is also a "good thing for customers."

When shipped, the MSE will initially offer four software modules: Context-Aware Software (wireless asset tracking capability), Adaptive Wireless Intrusion Prevention System (wIPS), Secure Client Manager and Mobile Intelligent Roaming, which provides seamless roaming between Wi-Fi and cellular networks.

"This is just the beachhead and proof of concept of what we believe can be done," said Kozup, who envisions context-aware applications that could help health care providers locate wheelchairs and other necessary equipment in quick time.

"Right now an extraordinary amount of time is wasted locating devices such as wheelchairs to transport patients," Kozup said. If an enterprise network could track and locate those devices in seconds it could improve patient care, he said.

Such network capabilities are tied to what Cisco calls network intelligence software. Other applications could be the ability to track emergency response personnel at disaster sites or even visitors at high-security sites such as energy and nuclear facilities.

According to Kozup, the company's goal is to build applications that will help bring true mobility to companies.

Cisco already has several partners signed up in its Partner Motion program to build and integrate software for the MSE, including big names such as Nokia (NYSE: NOK) and Oracle (NASDAQ: ORCL) as well as smaller niche applications makers including AeroScout, Agito Networks, Airetrak, Dimension Data and IntelliDot.

"This is very significant for several reasons as Cisco's taking an agnostic approach to providing an engine and interface to port middleware and provide functionality on the network," Craig Mathias, principal and founder of Farpoint Group, told InternetNews.com.

Pricing for the appliance, which integrates with the Cisco Unified Wireless Network portfolio, Cisco Unified Communications Manager and Cisco-compatible devices, starts at $19,995.

"It's all about moving from Wi-Fi to a mobility network, and we believe the third-party contributions will deliver great value," Kozup said.