Cisco Take On Apple? Please.

There’s a lot to admire about Cisco. It just might have the deepest bench of executive talent in all of tech. It’s got a fast-moving, egalitarian culture. It’s got one of the most innovative CEOs around, and it’s got over $30 billion in cold hard cash tucked away. Most of all, I can’t think of another company that has so successfully entered so many new markets—from data center servers to telepresence.

But consumer products? I can understand the company selling home networking gear, such as Linksys home routers and Scientific Atlanta cable boxes. What better way to boost Net traffic and thereby router sales.

But these are “gotta have” rather than “wanna have” products. For that reason, put me down as a skeptic (like Between The Line’s Larry Dignan) regarding Cisco’s acquisition yesterday of Pure Digital, the maker of Flip video recorders. In fact, my first thought wasn’t whether this meant Cisco could compete with Apple. Rather, my first thoughts were about why it can’t.

For starters, Apple is all about gut marketing. The company seems to be genetically in touch with the prevailing, mainstream (or at least the elitist, aspirational) zeitgeist. Forget the focus groups, just Think Different. Other than some heartstring-tugging ads of late for its Telepresence videoconferencing systems, I’ve always found Cisco’s consumer marketing to be corporate and not very genuine.

Apple is also all about user experience. Steve Jobs moves heaven and earth to make sure there’s not one too many clicks required to play a song or find a file, and rages against unsightly screw-holes that might mar a product’s aesthetic appeal. Cisco? Not so much. There have been incremental improvements in the ease of use of those Linksys routers. Now, they’re approaching not misery-inducing to configure. That’s not good enough, when you’re selling “wanna have” products like the Flip.

And Apple is all about focus. It does a few things at a time, and does them very well. It doesn’t throw dozens of products against the wall to see what sticks. Jobs is fond of saying that he’s as proud of what Apple doesn’t do, as what it does do.

Cisco couldn’t be more different. While Cisco has long been tech’s most ravenous acquisition machinee, I don’t believe it’s every been as expansionist as it is right now. Just consider the past week. First, on March 16, CEO John T. Chambers unveiled Cisco’s plan to dive headlong into the data center server market, taking on the likes of IBM for massive, nine-figure deals. Two days later, it’s buying a company whose flagship product costs less than $200.

While it was a banner exit for Pure’s founders, I worry about Pure’s customers. I hope that in its efforts to crank up Pure’s sales, Cisco doesn’t snuff out the brand and all the intangibles that make Flip cameras such a delight to own and use.

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