A wireless router is a plastic box that, when plugged into the D.S.L. or cable modem that delivers your Internet service, creates a Wi-Fi hot spot in your home. With it, all your laptops, iPod Touches, set-top boxes, game consoles and other gadgets can get online.
To Cisco Systems , that “25 percent” statistic is especially scary, because the home Wi-Fi router market is enormous. In this country, 65 percent of homes have high-speed Internet service, but only half of those have gone wireless.
So about a year ago, Cisco, maker of Linksys routers, made a huge and expensive gamble in hopes of becoming, in its own words, “the Apple of the networking industry.” It paid $590 million to buy Pure Digital, the company that makes Flip camcorders.
Why? Because Flip camcorders are drop-dead simple to use — push one big red button, and you’ve mastered it. No wonder the idiot-proof, stripped-down, no-zoom Flip camcorders dominate the market.
Imagine, Cisco’s executives thought, if Pure Digital’s simplification wizards could be thrown at the task of simplifying the wireless router! Imagine if you could press one big red button to set the thing up, instead of spending a weekend futzing with S.S.I.D., WEP-2 and D.H.C.P. The new team’s mandate was this: “We want you to make it Flip easy.”
The result is the new Cisco Valet ($100), a sleek, two-tone plastic wedge of a router. You’ll be hearing plenty about it; Cisco plans to spend more on advertising this thing in the next three months than the entire industry spent on Wi-Fi routers in the last five years.
So how did the new team make the Valet Flip easy?
Some of the efforts were psychological (which doesn’t necessarily mean ineffective). For example, the Valet comes in simple, white, uncluttered packaging. The off-putting word “router” doesn’t appear anywhere on it or inside it. (Instead, the box says, “The simple way to create your own wireless hot spot.” Good; most people have probably heard of a hot spot.)
The Valet comes with a toll-free help line that’s available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Outstanding.
The package opens like a cigar box; on the inside of the lid, you find the real masterstroke: a white U.S.B. flash drive. Each time you insert it into a Mac or a PC, that computer gets added to the network — no network name, passwords or decision-making required. This is a far cry from the usual ritual of inserting a setup CD, typing “admin” into your Web browser and encountering one form after another full of confusing abbreviations. (If any of that sounds familiar to you, well, my sympathies.)
The software even names your new network for you. Your hot spot gets named something cute like HappyDog, MonkeyTree, TinyFish or PeachLion. (You can rename it if you’re gagging.)
The software on the flash drive presents four easy-to-figure-out tiles. Click “Computers and devices” when you’re ready to add another machine to your network. Click “Parental controls” to limit your offspring’s access to the Web. (The Valet blocks both pornographic Web sites and individual sites that you specify. It also lets you restrict access to the Internet according to an hourly schedule — one for school days, one for weekends.)
A third tile says “Guest access”; visitors to your house can use your hot spot to get online, just by typing the password that appears here. (They can’t see your files on the network; it’s an Internet-only account.)
The fourth tile, “Valet settings,” opens the rabbit hole into the traditional Web page of technical Linksys router settings — I.P. addresses, port forwarding, D.N.S. servers and the like.
This is all a huge improvement, yes. Bravo.
Unfortunately, tragically, the Valet router is nowhere near Flip easy. Why tragic? Because this was the world’s one great hope for a truly simple router. It was Cisco’s big chance to go all the way — but it didn’t, and each shortfall hurts the mission.