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Cisco takes us back to the future

Like the crash (before this one) never happened

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Retailers themselves can look forward to telephones with screens - yes, real colour screens, onto which head office can display urgent product recalls and suchlike to stores that lack a computer. Quite how many chain-store branches don't have a single computer in the place - or how many chains are interested in fitting smartphones into every store - seemed unclear. However, Cisco retail specialist Cindy Etsell was adamant that the XML-based notification system would remove the need for computers and thus revolutionise retailing.

Next up was public services, with a demonstration of automated CCTV monitoring using software that could recognise the shape of a human and sound an alert when one crossed a virtual line. Questions as to whether individuals with boxes over their heads could be recognised were dismissed with a laugh - so clearly terrorists won't think of that. A demonstration showing how the system could spot an abandoned suitcase had a case of the fails when the case in question was left in the wrong place for the system to spot.

Getting terrorists out of their box

More practically noteworthy was a Wi-Fi box that automatically finds the best connection - 3G radio, WiMAX, or whatever is available. Still, this is much closer to the company's core competency, so it should come as no surprise that it's quite good at it.

The Visual Quality Enhancement (AQE) also plays to Cisco's strengths, even though it's clearly a consumer technology and built on the company's acquisition of set-top box specialist Scientific Atlanta. The premise is that compressed digital loses frames, especially when squeezed over an ADSL connection, but using AQE the set-top box can connect to a server and request the missing frame be resent, while playing out its 200ms buffer. The results were impressive, though Cisco will have to convince operators that it's worth buying when the temptation might be to just throw bandwidth at the problem.

Speaking of bandwidth-hurling, Cisco reckons it's created usable telepresence by building half a meeting room and fitting three huge plasma screens on which to display the other half. With clever technology to cut out mobile interference, and 5Mb/sec of bandwidth being used for each screen (two of which were displaying the empty parts of the room, at least during the demo), the experience was compelling and could save money for companies which are spending enough on air fares to pay for 15Mb/sec of bi-directional bandwidth.

Cisco is only taking its first steps into the consumer space, and is still deciding if it wants its recently redesigned logo to appear outside the server rooms and racks where it's a trusted brand. But it's clear that the company has a lot to learn about what normal people want, and can only impress when getting down into the networking technologies for which Cisco is best known.

Cisco apparently spent more than $4.5bn - 13 per cent of its revenue - on research and development last year. Hopefully not all of it was on recreations of retro visions of the future - it does make pretty good routers, and it would be a shame to forget that in the wash of nostalgia. ®

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