What tomorrow’s cable box looks like

thePlatform's Ian Blaine at GigaOM RoadMap 2011How do you build a cable box for people who are used to the iPad? That’s a problem Comcast (s CMCSK) has been trying to crack with a new cloud-powered cable service UI that thePlatform CEO Ian Blaine showed off at GigaOM RoadMap on Thursday. Blaine, whose company is a fully-owned subsidiary of Comcast, credited the iPad for pressuring cable operators to innovate. “It raises the expectations,” he said.
The new UI, which was previously known as Xcalibur, will offer a completely revamped program guide that will look much more like an iPad app than your plain old EPG. For example, the guide will offer search, which users can access via T9 with their regular TV remote control.
There will also be a bunch of extra meta-data around the program, making it possible for end users to find new content by actor or even through personal recommendations. Another neat feature: TV viewers will have a history of the nine most recent items viewed across VOD, live TV and online content.
Speaking of online content: Comcast’s upcoming cable box will also offer access to apps, including a weather widget, Pandora and a Facebook app. The latter will also be used to recommend TV content based on what’s popular amongst a viewer’s Facebook friends.
Comcast is now testing this new UI in one market, and plans to start rolling it out to a broader subscriber base some time in 2012. However, Blaine made clear that this would just be one step, with cloud services and meta-data offering many more possibilities.
The question is: How much of this will be embraced by cable companies? Asked how open the cable box of the future will be for third-party developers, Blaine said: “The cable operators have been the owners of the mall.” But with cable getting to new devices, like Microsoft’s Xbox, there are now several possibilities of who’s in charge of the mall, he explained, adding: “It’s less of a technical question and more of a business question.”
Photo by Pinar Ozger.