Apple of Comcast's Eye


January 8, 1935. It's the day that the King of Rock 'N' Roll, Elvis Presley, was born in Tupelo, Miss.

January 8, 2008. It's the day that the nation's largest cable operator — also born in Tupelo — gave birth to its attempt to become the King of All (Video and Entertainment) Media.

The launch of Comcast 3.0 by chairman Brian Roberts was intended to open the eyes of customers, competitors, electronics manufacturers and retailers that it intended to be the next Apple, in terms of innovation in electronics.

Roberts, in fact, made two direct comparisons to Apple Inc. in his hour-long address, in an attempt to put his outfit, whose home base is in Philadelphia, in the same league as Steve Jobs's Cupertino, Calif., crew.

In Comcast's 2.0 iteration, he noted, the signature innovation was delivering TV shows, movies and other video content stored on its servers at the instant a customer requested a piece. Since 2003, Comcast has delivered 6 billion videos on the demand of its customers, he said. “That's twice as many … views as there have been music downloads from Apple iTunes since its launch” in 2001, he said.

In Comcast 3.0, Comcast will start delivering new communications services that will let a person check home voice mail and e-mail not on a TV, but on a PC. Anywhere, at any time.

This, he pointed out, is a feature found on Apple's wildly popular iPhone. “Now it's available for your landline phone,” he said.

In effect, Roberts was inviting Comcast's development of new services that integrate the television, the telephone and the Internet to the best pioneer of new electronics products of the past decade.

Signs of Comcast's aspirations to be thought of in the same breath as Apple were abundantly apparent, on stage and elsewhere at the Consumer Electronics Show.

Time will tell whether the Six Degrees system for browsing enormous amounts of media will prove insanely simple to Comcast customers, like Macintosh systems tend to be for Apple's fans. But it's creative, compelling and, yes, fun, to use. Maybe even a time-sink, which can be a compliment in this era of endless connections between people and their interests. It could even be used to find connections between any kind of information on the Internet. It's a new form of hyperlinking, contained in easy-to-read rectangles that surface, in this first case, because of connections between different actors, movies, shows and career factors.

Time will also tell whether Fancast can hope to supersede iTunes as the digital media consumer's first stop in search of video objects of desire. But even in its first incarnation — and even for consumers who don't receive any kind of bill from Comcast — it has more depth and breadth than iTunes, when it comes to video. In effect, Comcast has taken a lesson from Google and is riding on top of all Net-based suppliers of video content. In one search, you draw results for that obscure movie you want — didn't it have Maria Bello in it? — from … the iTunes Music Store, and even Netflix. Not to mention the 'Net itself; or Comcast's own on-demand library and TV schedule, if you do happen to be a customer.

There was more. Its new on-screen program guide is a glossy, well-executed use of the expanded glass that is being found in tens of millions of U.S. households, as the digital and high-definition TV overhaul keeps surging this year and next. As with a computer, the user can customize how much text and information will suit him or her.

Now, Roberts' performance didn't leave Steve Jobs shaking in his shoes. Jobs, after all, is the king of charisma, on stage and on screen, when it comes to product and service debuts.

But in his earnest, corporate way, Roberts was sending a clear signal to Silicon Valley, Hollywood and other capitals of the collision of new digital media types: No one is going to take the home screen away from Comcast, without a huge fight.

And when it comes to video entertainment or communications, Roberts said, in essence, Comcast intends to not just operate better than rivals but, from here on, to innovate in visible ways in order to grab ground outside its normal television territories.

Cue the King to sing “Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On.”