There's a new contender in the tablet computer wars. The Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) iPad ignited a firestorm of tablet plans from the usual suspects, including the Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ) Slate and the Dell Streak. All quiet on the Western front; no surprises here. But nobody expected a tablet out of networking giant Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO).

The Cisco Cius is a tablet computer for the corporate crowd. Starting life as a Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) Android gadget with a 7-inch screen and an HD video camera, Cisco includes unique software of its own. The tablet can connect to a corporate network through an Android version of Cisco's well-known VPN client; join video calls, TelePresence meetings, and WebEx Connect sessions; even control a virtual desktop through the touchscreen -- enough to get any cloud computing enthusiast excited.

Snap the Cius into its docking station, and the result looks a lot like a business-grade telephone with a 7-inch full-color video screen. Cisco will start testing this product with customers later this year and then make it generally available in early 2011.

The Cius is clearly not a direct competitor to the consumer-friendly Apple iPad, because this thing screams "Office!" from every silicon cell of its existence. Steve Jobs can breathe easy this time. HP is a more likely direct rival in the corporate space, and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) should also worry about Cisco grabbing a larger share of the Unified Communications (UC) market.

Industry efforts to create a standardized UC framework have thrown Microsoft and HP into a partnership with hardware expert Logitech, video-conferencing specialist Polycom (Nasdaq: PLCM), and underdog networking vendor Juniper Networks (Nasdaq: JNPR) -- but Cisco is not a part of that standards body. The Cius could be a gateway drug to the Cisco way of UC life, locking customers into this particular set of protocols and networking practices.

Cisco also trumpets the Cius' "contacts-driven user experience" as an "eloquent" way of helping users connect to other people. Don't forget that this is an Android device; that makes the Cius a potentially potent weapon in Google's quest to raze Microsoft's stranglehold on business environments; every corporate campus equipped to take advantage of this gadget is another win for Google, too.

I didn't see this one coming, but I'm kind of excited about the opportunities it creates for both Cisco and Google. Did the Cius shock you, too? Share your reactions in the comments box below.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns shares in Google, but he holds no other position in any of the companies discussed here. Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Google and Polycom are Motley Fool Rule Breakers selections. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Logitech is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems choice. Motley Fool Options has recommended writing covered calls on Logitech and a diagonal call position on Microsoft. The Fool owns shares of Logitech. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors. This disclosure paragraph has overstayed its welcome and now bids you a gallant adieu.