Linksys' Giancarlo: Let us entertain you

Cisco Systems's acquisition of Linksys Group in 2003 brought the maker of utilitarian business and carrier gear into home networking for the first time. Now Cisco, along with a growing number of rivals, is running headlong into the very heart of home electronics: the TVs, stereos and video devices that traditionally have had nothing to do with routers or switches.

That the company saw the importance of the acquisition is clear from its choice of a leader. At the helm of Linksys is Charles Giancarlo, a longtime Cisco executive who developed the company's merger and acquisition strategy in the 1990s and now holds the titles of Cisco senior vice president and chief technology officer in addition to president of Cisco-Linksys.

In a keynote address last week at Connections, a conference on networked-home technology in Burlingame, California, Giancarlo discussed the future of digital video and music, VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol), personal videoconferencing and other emerging technologies. "We're going to be the Jetsons in about 10 years, I think," he quipped. After the address, IDG News Service asked Giancarlo about the state of some key technologies and the implications of networking what traditionally have been separate devices.

If a TV can speak UWB [ultrawideband] and a stereo system can speak Wi-Fi, then what is a home networking product

Charles Giancarlo: During the period of time when there are some devices that do [have networking capability] and some that don't, then there may be a home networking category, but at the point in time at which everything does, then it's part of the whole industry.

At that point, does Cisco become like Sony or become a component provider to home entertainment product makers

I would love to know the answer to that question. It's going to be a long time before this world sorts itself out. We do think that this integration of networking is more than just adding an Ethernet connection or a wireless connection. It's about the transformation of the [consumer electronics] component from being a stand-alone component that takes external inputs and transforms it and puts it on a display ... into a component that interacts with services both in the home and from service providers. We believe that we have as good a chance as anyone of being a significant player in that market.

What about UWB and the conflict between the two approaches to it? Does somebody have to be the grown-up here

It's not usual for there to be two or even three ... camps in a standards effort. Cisco likes to play a role -- but there are other companies that do quite a good job at this as well -- which is to really look at the technologies based on their merits. Even when you do that, however, there are times when you have to select one. We're in a world where universal standards make sense even when the standard is suboptimal in some uses, because the momentum of development allows that one standard that's chosen to eventually fix most of its problems, and there's so much volume behind it that it becomes the dominant technology. What's more important in the wireless environment, with UWB and [the IEEE 802.11n wireless LAN standard], is that we actually chose something and get on with it rather than endlessly debate the merits of each one. I think that's been Cisco's approach overall: to try and drive standards to conclusion. Sometimes we even do so by putting out a product early.

Are we going to get the best possible 802.11n, or the 802.11n that the most powerful vendors want

I don't think that either side thinks that they are submitting a standard that is suboptimal simply because they feel they have the technology to make it happen. I think this will come together pretty soon, because both sides just want to get something out the door, and I think there's pretty much agreement that we want to get this finalized by the end of the year.

If it's finalized by the end of the year, when would those products hit the market

Within months. It could be a month or two before, or it could be a month or two after.

In your presentation today, you mentioned broadband as a primary communications service. Am I going to be instant messaging the police or the fire department

You may not use it for your E911 services, but for example, it might be something that the government feels is appropriate for handicapped services, and there may be handicapped regulations built around it, and it might be something that would be subject to wiretapping laws, which it is not today.

Today we pay into universal access [funds] for telephone service. Actually, it's applied against the telephone number, right now.

Is universal service -- five years from now, ten years form now -- only applicable to voice, or is it applicable to other things? Let's say you're charging for the broadband line and voice comes as part of that broadband line. [Then] there are no revenues to charge against, [and also] is that what we want to guarantee universal service to in this country? We need to go beyond voice in our regulations in the [Federal Communications Commission].

What would a home storage device have to have

It can't be a "home storage device." People don't quite respond to "storage." What they respond to are devices that actually do something useful where storage might be part of what they do. For example, TiVo is a storage device. But ... when you talk to a normal consumer, they don't think of it as storage. I think the same can apply to music.

[There could be] a dedicated type of device where instead of a PC, it's a CD jukebox, which looks like a CD player sitting in your stereo rack, and you put a CD in there and it automatically rips it into an internal hard drive, and now with a user interface, allows you to play any CD that you might want. You can imagine the same thing for pictures. The important thing is that once you've stored that media somewhere, that you can get access to it anywhere else, and that's where the networking part of it comes in.

Is that something that you would see Linksys making

Yes. We have a lot of products that are actually out there today in the media space, and I think it kind of shows a trajectory toward capabilities such as this. Over time, we could imagine an entire entertainment system in the home.

You mentioned specialized uses for phone line and HomePlug powerline networking in the home. What are those specialized uses

We today sell HomePlug and we sell wireless, and I don't know the exact number, but wireless outsells HomePlug probably 100 to 1. But especially for things that are fixed in nature and you'd like to have constant communication between them, like home media equipment, HomePlug may make sense. If it were inexpensive enough so that you have to plug the device in anyway, and once you plug it in, it also gets networking capabilities, that could be compelling. If we can get HomePlug down to where it's a few dollars extra in cost to the manufacturer to add, then I think it could be quite big.

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