Comcast kicked off this week's Cable Show in Boston by showing off two new platforms with slick UIs for video and other services, launching first in Boston and then rolling out to Xfinity customers nationwide.
X1 (formerly tested under the codename Xcalibur) is for the television set. It finally unifies searching and browsing for real-time, on-demand, streaming, and DVR video. So if you search for "30 Rock," you can pull results that include upcoming shows, shows you've already recorded, the last few episodes available on-demand, back seasons from Comcast's Streampix library, or information about the series.
But X1 is also a software platform, with apps for sports, weather, traffic, and even favorites like Facebook and Pandora. Some of these, like the sports or social apps, integrate with video, so you can track statistics and other games or chat with friends on the same screen as live TV. All of the applications can be controlled from either a hardware remote or a new remote application for smartphones and tablets. It feels like a genuinely 21st-century way to use a widescreen television set — like a smart TV inside your cable box.
We got a chance to see the new X1 interface (as well as Comcast's new remote and iOS remote app) in action on the floor of the Cable Show in Boston. There's no doubt that it's a massive improvement over Comcast's previous offerings. The universal search in particular seems like a useful tool — from anywhere in the interface, you can start entering letters through the numerical keypad (like an old T9-style phone entry) and immediately pull up a list of all relevant programs. It pulls up results from your DVR, live programming, and On Demand — it's a much smarter way to look for content than the old style of search, which limited you to searching just in On Demand, for example. Search results even have a "more like" feature, much like you'll see on Amazon, so if your'e enjoying a particular program or movie, you can get recommendations tailored to that specific program.
Genuinely 21st-century television — like a smart TV inside your cable box
There's a plethora of options within each programming item, as well. Naturally, you can share a movie or TV show to Facebook and Twitter, but videos now pull in user and critic reviews from Rotten Tomatoes. You can easily view a movie trailer before watching or view the cast and crew to quickly find more movies by your favorite actor or director. There's even a built-in Shazam app — so if you're watching a program with music in it, you can activate Shazam and find the artist and song info without having to pull out your smartphone. The new remote itself looks like your standard cable remote, but it's more streamlined than previous offerings, in line with the more intuitive user interface. There's also a new iPhone app to go along with it — while there's no unexpected surprises here, it's definitely a welcome option.
Project Dayview is a little bit different. It's a task manager that brings together information from all Xfinity services — video, voice, email, and the company's new networked home products — to display them on either the television set as a kind of screensaver or through the web on a computer, tablet, or smartphone. You can schedule to record a show on DVR, check your home security camera to make sure your kids got home, and send them an email, all through the same portal.
In use, it's a pretty nice overview of all of a customer's Xfinity services, as well as any feeds that a user chooses to plug in. You can have streaming new headlines, sports scores, weather, Twitter, Facebook, or even Instagram feeds beamed to the Project Dayview dashboard. It's not all that dissimilar to what you might find on a smart TV, but for Xfinity customers, it'll provide much greater integration of the various services customers use.
The home services integration is probably the most noteworthy aspect — if customers have Comcast home security, they can monitor the various cameras set up around the house, take pictures and record video from them, and arm or disarm the various security systems. You can also get your voicemails transcribed as text (or just listen to the audio) as well as receive text messages sent to your home phone number right on the TV. It's an ambitious feature set that aims to use your TV as a portal to nearly all the technology in your home.
Comcast SVP Marcien Jenckes tells us that there are two parts to the rollout of X1. The first is geographical: it's coming to Boston on May 30th, then five to ten major markets before the end of the year. The goal is to get coverage in all of Comcast's market by mid-2013. The second part of the rollout is penetration into Comcast's customer base. At first, the platform will be limited to Xfinity Triple Play customers, i.e., voice, video, and broadband subscribers. But Jenckes says that they eventually want to shift all of their television customers over to the platform. Some of that will have to include a rollout of new cable boxes and remotes. It's not just flipping a switch.
Comcast is turning itself into a software company
Jenckes adds that while the new UIs might be the most immediate detail customers notice about X1, it's not the whole story. It's part of a broad transformation of Comcast's delivery on the backend in the cloud, as well as its investments in new software teams and technology. "The future of cable is not like its past," Jenckes said.
The big news is that cable giant Comcast, which like other telecoms had arguably been more or less a dumb pipe for various kinds of content, is turning itself into a software company, while helping to turn the television itself into a software platform. It's starting with its own UIs, a few apps, and well-known partners like Facebook, Pandora, and Skype, but it's moving towards something bigger, something closer to Microsoft's or Apple's aspirations to bring a wide range of computing to the living room.
This also signals a broader trend of the big-money telecoms themselves taking back parts of the user experience they've given over to set-top box and smart TV manufacturers. Buying a fancy screen from Samsung or Sony isn't the only way to get applications for your television; buying an Apple TV isn't the only way to get a great UI. Not every cable company has Comcast's deep pockets to pull this off, but for the ones that do, there's a huge competitive advantage. Comcast can use software to retain and delight their customers, plus maintain complete control over their own destinies. The game is changing.
Nathan Ingraham contributed to this report.