Cisco Video Chief: TV Must Get the 'Net

TV providers shouldn't fight the Internet -- they should embrace it.

That's one of the key messages Enrique Rodriguez, newly installed as senior vice president and general manager of Cisco Systems' Service Provider Video Technology Group, is delivering to the company's customers.

"The No. 1 thing this industry needs to understand is, there's no way you can match the scale and the innovation of the Internet," Rodriguez said in an interview with Multichannel News, his first since leaving Microsoft to head Cisco's video group in June.

To that end, Cisco's next generation of set-top boxes will be hybrids that are "more eloquent" in providing access to both digital-cable video services and Internet content and applications. "It's not just bringing the browser to the television," Rodriguez noted. "It's more than that."

Along with the shift to Web-delivered applications on TV, devices will become smaller and more of the intelligence will move into the network, Rodriguez said. Meanwhile, cable headends will shift away from proprietary hardware platforms to more of a mix of special-purpose equipment and software running on commodity hardware.

"It's going to be very interesting to see who is my competitor -- and who is my ally -- in the next few years. I wish I knew what it will look like," he said.

Rodriguez, 48, previously was Microsoft's corporate vice president for the TV, video and music business unit, which includes the Mediaroom Internet-protocol TV platform. Prior to joining Microsoft in 2003, he spent more than 20 years at Thomson/RCA.

He's found the Cisco video group to be unusually customer-focused, compared with Microsoft and Thomson, where the business was driven more from the product management and marketing side. That's a good thing, according to Rodriguez, but at the same time he sees an opportunity to deliver a stronger "Cisco viewpoint" on technology shifts and product evolution.

"Customers are expecting more leadership from us, especially when you see the transition to IP video," he said.

The next wave of IP-based TV services also will be marked by a mix of devices, networks and services-many of them "unmanaged," Rodriguez said, meaning they're not supplied by a cable, telco or satellite providers. Customers expect to be able to access content on any device over any network (even if it's outside an MSO's footprint) and increasingly will want to access Web services and apps created by third parties.

Does the rise of numerous video-capable devices, which won't need an operator-supplied box, threaten Cisco's sales of set-tops? "Absolutely," Rodriguez said, "but it's not the first time we've seen a challenge to the set-top business."

Other attempts to marry the Web and TV, such as Google TV, will help push the industry to open up services -- and that should ultimately make customers happier, Rodriguez said. But Web technologies such as HTML5 will serve as the platform for running TV-based applications, he added, unlike the dedicated operating systems in the mobile devices world.

Cisco also isn't intending to go direct-to-consumer by selling Internet set-tops at retail, Rodriguez indicated: "We're looking at the service providers as the center of gravity of opportunity. They're in a very strong position."