Cable Must Step Up Innovation, says Comcast and Time Warner

While the media focused on the new Wi-Fi hotspot roaming agreement announced this week at The Cable Show, there was lots more innovation popping up at the Boston trade event - new platforms, apps and services. And in panel discussions, chief technology officers from Comcast and Time Warner  kept pushing the message of change and innovation to deal with the evolving needs/tastes of customers  and the strategies of rivals. 

Comcast's Slant: "I think the whole world's moving faster," said Comcast Chief Technology Officer Tony Werner in his comments to the cable community. "We have to step it up," citing Comcast's new forays into Skype on TV, home security and energy management and monitoring, plus its new X1 cloud-based Internet Protocol video platform. "We'll see which ones have stickiness," he said.

Rolling out soon in Boston and coming to "5 to 10 more markets" by year's end, X1 looks even spiffier than its prototype predecessor, Xcalibur, which Comcast showed me last year. While offering users the chance to multi-task - simultaneously watching a TV show while also checking out news headlines, ball scores, weather and messages from Facebook and Twitter friends - the screen never looks too cluttered. The graphic layout is very clean, with an easy-on the-eyes typeface, charcoal-toned backdrops and just tasteful splashes of color.  Comcast also seems to have fine tuned/narrowed the X1 search engine, so it looks for stars, movies, directors etc. within the mega-company's own universe of content already recorded on the DVR, available on demand or coming up soon in the program guide listings.  I'd previously been told it "could" also locate  content from sites like YouTube, though that option seems to have been eliminated in Comcast's new (Apple-like) walled gatden content approach.

But now you can also run your Comcast home security and management  system through the same user interface - calling up a baby-cam image, changing the air conditioning  setting  and arming the alarm system from the same intergrated remote control used for all the TV and social network apps. 

The Price To Pay: Because X1 requires serious processing power, the platform will only work with brand new and recently installed high end cable boxes, and so initially will be available just to Comcast's most profitable customers that take the Triple Play - TV, internet and home phone.

A mobile phone threat:  Another incentive to bundle up is Comcast's newly announced Voice2go Wi-Fi calling service, which invites customers to make calls and send texts for free within a Wi-Fi network  on their mobile device using their home phone number and Comcast's Xfinity Connect Mobile app for iOS and Android. The new app also lets a customer create four virtual phone numbers for family members to use with  Xfinity Connect Mobile. Suddenly, that newly announced national Wi-Fi hotspot roaming agreement ("CableWiFi") between Comcast, Time Warner, Bright House, Cox and Cablevision is looking more valuable.

Time is Ticking: From Time Warner Cable's perspective, priority nunber one is for cable operators to deliver their "full array of content" to every video capable gadget both inside and outside the house, said chief strategy officer Peter Stern. "People don't just watch video inside the house anymore. Thirty percent of viewing now takes place outside the house." He also warned that Netflix's ubiquitous streaming service is eating cable's lunch. 7 million of Netfllx's 25 million subscribers do not use any other pay service, potentially costing cable operators $45-$50 per subscriber.

Stern also raised the possibility that the traditional cable set-top will soon go away, its functionality fully baked  into smart TV sets as Samsung has already demonstrated. ""If you do the math" (set top rentals are) "not a very good business," said Stern. "I'd happily walk away from that revenue." Added Comcast's Werner, "I think Google would've wished you said something about that before they bought Motorola."