Cisco is like Apple. Only different…


Yesterday was the second or third time ever that I had to deal with a Cisco Pix (a glorified router, if you ask me). Before your jaw drops with secret admiration, I must come clean: I was just typing the commands that someone, who is knowledgeable on this, was dictating word by word over the phone so the router would do what it’s supposed to do – I was just his eyes and fingers for about an hour. This person, however, gets my admiration for having taken the time to learn to manage a piece of hardware as arcane as anything Cisco.

For those unfamiliar with what it’s like to set up a Cisco router, the best example I can think of from my experience today is that it’s exactly what it would feel if you turned off your computer’s monitor only to turn it on, for about a minute, for a quick peek every 10 minutes or so to see the results of what you’ve been doing. It’s a telnet interface (a text screen where you enter commands) and through the process, the device’s feedback is limited to a few error messages and nothing else: if it doesn’t complain about what you typed, you’re on track.

Cisco equipment is famously expensive (I’m sure it’s pretty good too, but then, it really takes effort to make a router that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to, anyway), though the really interesting part of all this is the business model:

  1. Cisco makes expensive equipment that’s a bitch to manage.
  2. Cisco certifies users as Cisco-capable after they take one or more [rather expensive] courses.
  3. After spending a ton of money on getting certified I’d be hell-bent on recommending Cisco equipment (I want my money back, and so would anyone with an IQ higher than their waist size).
  4. Which takes us back to 1.

If there were a 3a, it’d probably read something like “The last thing Cisco-certified people want is for Cisco to add a user interface to their products that’s actually usable.”

The bottom line, though, is that the entire business model relies on the user-interface being as bad as possible. Were they to slap a web server on top of the configuration facilities (like home or small-business routers have), they would self-destroy, as they’d be, in effect, alienating their key evangelists and, in the process, they’d also cheapen their product in the eye of the consumer, as anyone’s teenage nephew would be proficient at it in a matter of hours, if not less.

After today, I think the only way they could make it worse (or better, depending on who you ask) would be to substitute the English commands, which start making a bit (a tiny bit, I must add) of sense after about an hour of being at it, with mnemonics (i.e. “A5” instead of “configure”).

But, how is Cisco like Apple? you might be wondering. Simple: both businesses rely heavily on the user interface of their products, only one couldn’t be better and the other couldn’t be worse.

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