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:
- Cisco makes expensive equipment that’s a bitch to manage.
- Cisco certifies users as Cisco-capable after they take one or more [rather expensive] courses.
- 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).
- 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.