King Brian Throws a Curve


Most attendees of last week's National Show in Chicago are probably still wondering what exactly is brewing between the nation's No. 1 MSO, Comcast Corp., and its top computer-software company, Microsoft Corp.

For show-goers who were expecting to hear boatloads about HDTV, Comcast president and CEO Brian Roberts threw a curve ball, touting cable's Internet-protocol platform instead.

He shared the stage with his buddy, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, who had invested $1 billion in Comcast some seven years ago. Comcast's "King Brian" startled all in what was an otherwise unremarkable panel.

But at the very end, Roberts took control, intent on getting his point across. Maybe he was as bored as the rest of us, but I don't think so. The giant Comcast clearly had an important message for the rest of the world to hear.

Roberts asked Gates why he thought cable's Internet-protocol technology could carry not only data and telephony, but video as well. That question seemed to startle the other panelists. AOL Time Warner Inc. chairman Dick Parsons's jaw visibly dropped.

Clearly, Roberts' question to Gates was a message to Wall Street that cable — not direct-broadcast satellite or the Baby Bells — has the superior technology. It was also a pointed message aimed at Washington: Cable's platform is, indeed, an open one.

"I'm particularly excited about what I hear from Bill that cable is in a good place. To hear that the cable network is well-positioned to do IP transport [for video] has the same profound implications as cable modems back in 1997," Roberts told attendees.

For folks who were expecting this convention to mainly be a showcase for high-definition offerings, Roberts's remarks came as a total surprise to all.

That little exchange between Gates and Roberts — perhaps only five minutes in duration — caused a lot of anxiety later when people wondered what exactly was the new relationship that apparently was being forged between the two giant companies, Microsoft and Comcast.

Considering the bombshell Roberts dropped, it's no surprise that conspiracy theories abounded, even among some of cable's most savvy executives. For example, one cable executive wondered if Microsoft's Xbox — a device that allows operators that carry the Comcast-owned G4 gaming channel interactivity with their customers — was really a stalking Trojan horse.

He and other executives feared that Microsoft could turn cable's infrastructure into one big dumb pipe, controlled by Microsoft — one that could be glutted with more Microsoft applications than anyone would be comfortable with supporting.

That might be a little wild-eyed. But operators potentially have much to fret over, as the nation's No. 1 MSO takes a veer in its strategy and strengthens its relationship with powerhouse Microsoft.

After all, Gates — with his near monopolistic control of the computer operating-system business — is a potential partner who is indeed capable of usurping control. He has already wielded his power in the software industry.

So what about cable? Having said that, I simply cannot imagine that Comcast is not shrewd enough to see the potential pitfalls and red flags on the field inherent the powerful partnership it is forming with Microsoft.