CTAM Summit: Comcast, CableLabs Click On iPad Remotes

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Complete coverage of CTAM Summit 2010

Changing the channel with an iPad isn't just a neat parlor trick -- it fundamentally changes the TV experience, said Todd Walker, Comcast's senior vice president of video product development.

The iPad is the newest darling of the cable industry. Comcast plans to release its iPad app, which lets subscribers change channels, as well as search listings and video-on-demand, "very, very soon," Walker said on a panel at the CTAM Summit.

Meanwhile, CableLabs has developed a prototype for a similar iPad remote control and is looking to establish a common technical approach for syncing up Internet-based devices with set-top boxes.

"It is a fundamental game changer," Walker said. "The thing that's different is, it's so easy for consumers to find what they want -- and get instant fulfillment."

Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts got the iPad hoopla rolling at the Cable Show 2010 in May, showing off a demo of an early prototype in his keynote.

Now, about six months later, the iPad remote is nearly ready for commercial launch, Walker said. Comcast also expects to extend the feature to Android-based phones and "any device you can think of."

"We expect to turn releases every 90 days," he said. "We have lots of pent-up features we want to put into this."

CableLabs worked up an iPad remote proof of concept in about three and half weeks, following Roberts' demo at the Cable Show, according to senior architect Debbie Fitzgerald.

Smaller-market operators came to CableLabs to ask for assistance putting an iPad remote together. "Every operator we've spoken to is interested in enhancing their service in this way," Fitzgerald said.

Both Comcast and CableLabs apps use the Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format (EBIF) spec to communicate with set-tops, with an Internet server handling the communication between the set-top and iPad or other device.

"The important thing is these are not IP-enabled set-top boxes," Fitzgerald said. "We can roll out these services quickly on existing infrastructure."

The CableLabs prototype app provides searches, navigation, channel surfing and program information. Additional apps are also possible, Fitzgerald added, such as enhanced guide listings, synchronized advertising and social networking.

Time Warner Cable, for its part, has previously discussed its own project for delivering iPad remote. Research firm Gartner predicts 19.5 million media tablets will be shipped worldwide this year, with 54.8 million next year. The panel, "IP Video and the Realm of Possibility," was moderated by Leslie Ellis, Multichannel News columnist and a senior technology advisor to CTAM.

Ellis asked Walker, "Does ‘very, very soon' mean closer to Halloween, Thanksgiving or Christmas?" Walker replied: "Yes."
After using the prototype iPad remote at home, Walker said, "I will never use my on-screen guide again."

The Comcast employees who have participate in the iPad remote control trial watch more video on demand, and more paid VOD, according to Walker. In some markets, Comcast has 30,000 titles on VOD: "It's impossible to navigate that on the TV. It's really easy on a tablet," he said.

Comcast wants to embed its services into a wide variety of devices, including potentially broadband-connected TVs. "We don't want them to see Netflix or Google TV, and not have the opportunity to also have the Comcast experience," Walker said.

As for pressure from over-the-top services, Walker reiterated that the MSO doesn't see a lot of "cord cutting" per se although "we do see we're losing premium subscribers to Netflix."

About 85% of Comcast customers watch video on the Web-and a "big chunk also have Netflix, more than I thought," Walker added.

Cable operators are showing that they will be able to respond to over-the-top threats, said Omar Javaid, Motorola's vice president of converged media software and services.

"It's very easy to write off the cable industry, but it's very easy for them to come up to speed," he said.

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