Comcast.net: A Portal With Pipes

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Now warming up in the bullpen … Comcast.net. If you’re not a Comcast subscriber, you probably haven’t seen this. But it’s worth more than passing interest — even on the part of nonsubscribers.

It’s a Web portal, of course. Brought to you by the nation’s largest operator, counting 21.5 million subscribers.

But it’s not a marketing home page, designed to sell you new cable services or upgrade existing ones (See www.cablevision.com). It’s a real gateway to the Internet. It strives, clearly, to do for the broadband era of high-speed cable connections what America Online did for the narrowband era, when neophyte computer users used telephone lines to “dial up” the Internet.

The home page is clear. The top gives you a personal greeting and a search window. Then, a bar of popular features — almost all of which, in one way or another, are particularly geared to the speed and volume of data that a broadband connection allows to be used effectively.

The first box is for mail. No surprise. But, it integrates three-minute video messages, if you have or get a webcam. Photos (unlimited storage) and music (100-plus commercial-free radio stations) are top-of-page. The kicker is something called The Fan (“Behind the Fan Stands the Platform,” Aug. 8, 2005, p. 29).

This is Comcast’s attempt to bring logic, organization and simplicity to surging amounts of video files that can be played back at will (“The [R]age of Downloads,’’ this issue). It’s a spinning wheel of choices that resembles a dart board. Along each slice is a different kind of programming, from sports to entertainment to news. There’s a pullout search bar, just in case.

It takes a little getting used to. But it’s interesting that The Fan also resembles the wheel on an iPod, the de facto choice for searching large amounts of digital files on the move, with one hand.

The site’s overall design is clean and compelling. It’s rich, yet simple. It’s active, but not distractive.

What’s the point? Not to make a promo pitch, but to pick out what this says about Comcast’s ambitions on the Web.

Simplicity and ease of navigating riches of information is what wins out in almost every generation of technology-based services.

It’s why Apple Computer Inc. stood out first in computing, and was the lone manufacturer to withstand the crush of commoditization. It’s also why it so dominates the portable music business with iPod. It’s a big reason why Google took over in search with its ultra-simple “interface.’’ And simplicity is why America Online won the hearts and minds of Internet newbies.

Comcast is setting itself to be the dominant portal of the high-speed, hooked generation of Internet fans. Its avoids the clutter of Yahoo! and is way more compelling than Google as a window into the multimedia, unlimited channel world of the Net.

So it’s hardly surprising that it’s hanging around Google and AOL. These are birds of a feather. Just because the story (“Comcast, Google Make Play for AOL,” Oct. 17, page 3) has died down, for now, don’t think Brian Roberts or Steve Burke have any less ambition than a month ago to define what the Internet experience is in the broadband era and — to be the primary starting point.

Right now, Comcast just wants to keep its customers satisfied — away from the clutches of rivals such as Verizon Communications Inc. or SBC Communications Inc. But, it’s not a far leap to see that Comcast might like to grow beyond the bounds of its local systems. It’s made a deal with Level 3 Communications for national transport of packets of data. It can pick up fiber capacity to reach all states and municipalities; and figure out how to get solid connections through wireless means to all households.

At some point, in the not-too-distant future, the bet here is that Comcast will open up all parts of its portal to all comers. It’s one thing to be the number one provider of broadband Internet service in the nation. Comcast is that already.

But think of the potential for shareholders if Comcast is actually able to replicate in broadband what AOL did in narrowband. A complete package of content and connections. A national Internet service provider. Every town, every state.

Or more.

Remember: AOL never owned any pipes.

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