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Cisco Smart WiFi Timeline

Consumer router makers have been hinting about app-enabled routers for a few years in private meetings. D-Link and NETGEAR finally went public back at January's CES with their plans to add cloud-based features. And D-Link has actually shipped its first "cloud" router, the DIR-605L.

With today's announcement, Cisco dropped the third shoe and revealed its plans for smart / cloud / app-enabled routers. But in a very uncharacteristic move, Cisco is taking a staged strategy. The company is starting by shipping hardware now, then adding remote management and maybe some feature enhancements in June. Then finally sometime this fall--if they hold schedule--Cisco will start shipping the real core of the product, the apps.

While I have all three of the new routers in hand and have reviewed the EA3500, Cisco hasn't provided access to any of its cloud features. So I'm stuck with sharing what I've learned about Cisco's plans from a few briefings.

Consumer networking companies have long tried to imbue their routers with features designed to lure buyers and hopefully retain them as customers for life. Belkin made perhaps the boldest move with its Surf, Share, Play and Play Max app-based routers. Unfortunately, too many of the apps weren't built into the routers themselves and required installing software in networked computers and the product never really took off.

With the rise of the Android ecosystem and low-power multi-core processors, enabling technologies have come far enough to bring more capabilities into routers that won't put too severe a dent in the family wallet. But vendors aren't adopting Android, instead opting for proprietary platforms based on open source technolgies.

In its first group of "App Enabled" products, Cisco is using both Broadcom and Marvell based designs. So at least the company is keeping its options open (and its vendors on their toes) hardware-wise. Conspicuously absent is Qualcomm Atheros (QCA), perhaps because they are too occupied pursuing tablet and smartphone business.

In private briefings, Cisco has been painting a picture of the router as home nerve-center; its virtual heart, or more in keeping with the analogy, its virtual brain. The slide below encapsulates Cisco's vision quite succinctly, with the router moving from providing mere shared internet access to integrating a wide array of devices with varying duties.

Cisco Intelligent Home Network

Cisco Intelligent Home Network

We have seen most of this before, especially the gaming and video streaming part. Cisco and its competitors have been very effective in connecting wireless and video in consumers' minds. So much so, that most buyers don't even think of trying the current HomePlug AV 200 Mbps and 500 Mbps solutions that in many cases can deliver HD content much more reliably than wireless.

The new things in this slide, at least for Cisco, are the Smart Thermostat and Smart Appliances. In the CES demo suite, they even had an App Enabled Whirlpool refrigerator. Missing from this picture, but certainly in Cisco's plans is Home Security.

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