• Comcast's New iPad App is Full of Surprises

    Here's something to get your head around: yesterday at the Cable Show, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts did a short demo of a Comcast Xfinity "remote control" prototype app for the iPad, video of which is available on YouTube. I'll get to the app in a minute, but first, if you're a long-time cable industry watcher like me, you'll immediately be struck by several surprising things:

    First - when (if ever?!) did you see a cable CEO do a hands-on product demo? Sure, they'll periodically narrate a demo of something, but actually navigating through the experience themselves, a la Steve Jobs? Not in my memory. While Roberts doesn't exude the gusto that Jobs does for his products, the CEO touch is still very meaningful (Jobs's personal touch is arguably what makes Apple so special, turning its product introductions into genuine events). And credit to Roberts - he executes the demo admirably, with no errant moves.

    Second - speaking of Apple, a cable CEO demo'ing an unaffiliated third-party's device? And that third party happens to be Apple, which is tacitly sworn to disrupting the cable industry's hegemony over the video ecosystem? Going a step further, Roberts highlights the iPad's virtual keyboard, which allows title-by-tile searching, as addressing "the missing link" with existing set-top boxes (later Roberts says "this liberates us from the cable box"). The iPad's pixie dust knows no bounds!

    And third - the irony that the video of the demo is available on YouTube (see below). YouTube! Not Comcast's Fancast portal nor in its VOD menu. Think about it - not long ago YouTube was derided as a copyright infringing haven and collection of user-generated schlock. Now, when the CEO of America's largest cable operator wants to get the word out beyond the audience at the Cable Show about its sexy new iPad app, the vehicle is YouTube. My how the world changes.

    Meanwhile, the app itself, which "pairs the iPad to Comcast's set-top box" using EBIF (Enhanced TV Binary Exchange Format, the cable industry's spec for delivery interactive app to set-top boxes), allows the user to navigate through the full channel lineup and zero in on categories like sports and movies, and also drill down on specific shows and VOD selections. When a show is chosen to watch, voila, the app changes the set-top's channel, just like an over-sized remote control. You can also choose to record if you prefer. Lastly, in a nod to social viewing, Roberts shows how he can invite a friend to view the same program. The friend receives a notice on his iPad and with one touch, can tune in as well. Comcast sees lots of upside in the iPad app, with users eventually able to view the programs themselves right on the iPad. The app is both surprising and neat.

    The logical question to ask is why is Comcast relying on Apple's latest innovation in order to deliver some of its own innovation? I mean, Apple had nothing to do with video until a few years ago, and arguably is still a nascent player in the space, while Comcast is the largest cable operator in the land. If it wanted to deliver a tricked-out remote control years ago, why didn't it?

    There are many different ways to answer the question, but I think it boils down to 2 things: first, while most cable companies have invested heavily in behind-the-scenes infrastructure to deliver broadband and other advanced TV services, relatively few new on-screen services have been created because cable is largely a closed environment for application developers. Cable has been closed because cable operators have it in their DNA to be focused on control of what goes into their subscribers' homes. Letting "a thousand flowers bloom" is not in the average cable executive's mindset.

    Second, and as a byproduct of this, most developers have ignored the cable environment. While Apple's App Store boasts of hundreds of thousands of innovative apps, the cable world has lumbered to deliver a tiny fraction of this amount, and at a glacial pace. It's not for lack of interest by developers; going back to the mid-90s there has been interest in interactive apps. But between the technology impediments and the cart-before-the horse negotiations over revenue splitting that cable operators inevitably get into, most developers have simply moved on to the open, flexible Internet. That's been a huge missed opportunity for cable, which could have been an intensely appealing platform for interactivity. Instead the door has been opened wide for others like Apple and Google to rush in.

    All of this makes the iPad app from Comcast look like an important, yet admittedly small step forward. It's just one prototype, from just one operator, but it should be a strong signal to the cable community to embrace the technology advances happening all around them, to deliver innovation to their customers. That's what winners like Apple and Facebook are doing, and that's what cable must do as well.

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