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Cisco and AT&T partner to sell Cius tablet: Small VARs beware?

Cisco and AT&T have partnered up to sell the Cius tablet in the enterprise business space. Will this partnership risk the chance of smaller VARs selling the Cius tablet?

AT&T will begin selling an HSPA+ ready version of Cisco's Cius tablet in the fall of 2011, and the two companies will partner to create an ecosystem of application developers for the tablet. That tight partnership may be a cause for concern for smaller Cisco partners that can also sell the tablet but aren't mobile service providers or necessarily prepared to develop their own apps.

For Cisco, AT&T was an obvious go-to market partner, since the service provider already offers Cisco telepresence and collaboration technologies for the enterprise. The Cius aims to be a unified communications tool, enabling mobile video conferencing and collaboration apps. The tablet can also act as an iPhone and a thin client for desktop virtualization.

“AT&T has been a great partner of Cisco in the enterprise space. They host telepresence sessions for customers that want to do business-to-business communications through high-definition telepresence units. That spring boards where the Cius tablet fits in. AT&T is really excited by the possibilities that Cius provides its customers, in both real-time and non-real-time collaboration,” said Tom Puorro, director of IP communications for Cisco.

Mont Phelps, president and CEO of Cisco partner NWN Corp., is looking forward to selling the Cius tablet, but is a bit concerned about going up against AT&T.

“I believe in the whole concept of tablets and mobility and the emergence of tools like the Cius that are going to change how work is done. We can see many applications that are begging for a tool like that,” Phelps said. “I’m willing to compete with AT&T as long as it’s a level field and if AT&T is selling it to a market segment that is specific to them.”

The good news for smaller VARs, according to Phelps, is that “it isn’t always better to deal with large organizations, which tend to operate in a bureaucratic manner.”

“In the competitive jungle, it’s not the big that’s going to eat the small, it’s the fast that’s going to eat the slow. We need to be nimble, responsive and reactive,” he added.

Cisco execs say the company will treat all VARs equally—though the Cius tablet will mostly be aimed at unified communications certified partners and those with data center specializations that know how to tell the tablet story.

“We don’t want monopolistic behavior, we want everyone to participate. Through incentive programs, discounting structures and training, everybody gets an equal opportunity to show their value with the customer,” said Puorro. “We want to make sure a VAR is capable of selling Cius. The more training you have in Cisco, the more potentially you can sell.”

Still, it's likely that AT&T will have somewhat of an advantage since it will be partnering with Cisco to encourage application development through AT&T's Foundry innovation center. Yet Cisco says that it will be open to application development from any corner of the channel.

“We’re doing a lot of co-development and partner-enablement work. We’ve already done two sessions on fostering the community for third-party applications for the business world. Cius is open to other third parties, not just Cisco partners. Anybody that can write an application that works on Android, will automatically work on Cius,” Puorro explained.

Cius tablet vs. the rest of the world

Regardless of whether the VAR is large or small, it will have to face the fact that Cisco is a bit late to market, considering a slew of competitors are well on their way to market penetration. So, is Cisco nervous about arriving to the party so late?

“I don’t think we are late in the game. There is still a very large market to go after. The iPad is a very good product for the consumer space. [If] you want to check email, the Web, watch a movie or listen to music, that product is fantastic, but if you want to have a true business-class experience, that’s where we differentiate ourselves,” Puorro said.

Cisco has worked hard to ensure that the Cius’ technology lends itself to the differentiation in tablet purpose.

“We wanted to make sure the Cius was centered on the global market, and open to verticalization. It can be used in an office, warehouse, on top of a wind tower, on a cruise ship, etc. We packed a lot of technology into it both on the software and hardware side. On the software side, we’ve been developing with internal and external Cisco partners, apps that fit healthcare, retail, sales force enablement, etc.For example, if I’m a nurse at a nurse station, I can find a doctor on call with my tablet and initiate high-definition video. So they can see a patient that is in pain and prescribe help without actually being there,” Puorro said, adding that there is also a role for the Cius tablet in many government agencies and K-12 educational settings.

Cisco also focuses on security and consolidation in a big way with the Cius. “The consumer devices don’t necessarily pay attention to the same levels of security and classification that the enterprise user expects. We are focused on what the enterprise and business-class user wants and sticking that in a tablet. We also envision Cius as being a consolidation of devices that you potentially own, like a desk phone and even your laptop or desktop,” Puorro said.

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