Cisco has launched four wireless LAN applications, and an open appliance that will let third party software run tasks such as location tracking and voice on Cisco wireless LANs. Early comments suggest the move could change the wireless LAN market, shifting it away from technology and towards applications.

The 3300 Series Mobility Service Engine is a high level platform that supports applications that use Cisco wireless LANs. Alongside Cisco's mobility applications, it has an open application programming interface (API) so third parties can write software that use the Cisco wireless LANs.

It's a surprise announcement, and a change of direction. Since the arrival of the 802.11n standard, the wireless LAN market has seen fierce competition over the basic functions and architecture of wireless access points and their controllers. Cisco's hardware was early for enterprise 802.11n kit, and the competition claim their newer kit is superior.

This announcement leaves the hardware completely unchanged - so is the focus on applications just sleight of hand to distract us from the WLAN hardware? Not a bit of it, according to the first comments we got: "This is a very significant announcement," said Craig Mathias of the Farpoint Group. "Applications are, after all, why we buy networks in the first place. Moving common functionality into a dedicated server on the network makes a lot of sense. This is a logical extension of what began as mobile middleware, well over ten years ago."

The MSE - part of Cisco's Motion strategy - will let Cisco and its partners shift away from technology arguments and sell wireless-based applications to new users. It already has four applications from Cisco, and support from major third parties, incuding IBM, HP, Nokia and Oracle, as well as application vendors such as Aeroscout in location and Agito in fixed-mobile convergence.

"The platform is open and extensible," said Mathias. "It will attract a lot of developers as well as enterprises looking for a convenient spot to host their own applications."

"There is a lot of argument in the industry, about how round your wheel is, not what you do with the actual vehicle," explained Cisco director of mobility solutions Ben Gibson, referring to debates about wireless LAN architecture, which have been re-ignited by the move to 802.11n.

"We have separated network services and control from the applications," he went on. "Application developers need a platform that is open and centralised, so they don't have to develop to closed platforms." The announcement is Cisco's biggest in wireless LANs, since the acquisition of Calhoun's company, Airespace in 2004, he said.