Thursday, May 24, 2012

Looking for evidence of the “Digital Living Room” of the future

When I attend industry conferences, I often spend time asking myself if I am generating enough value by attending to justify the travel cost, the time away from family, and the pain of the accompanying late nights and early morning meetings.  After arriving in Boston for NCTA’s 2012 CableShow, I noticed the relatively light attendance when compared to previous CableShows or other industry events.  Now I am not complaining that the cab lines are short or that I could get a sandwich at lunch time (vs. a few hours before or after) without a problem, and I am certainly not complaining about the host city—Boston is fabulous town.  But when I looked around the show and asked others what were the big “a-ha’s”, there wasn’t an immediate reply.  Everyone quickly said they caught up with tons of industry contacts, colleagues, and of course customers, but we don’t need the show floor expense with demos and meeting rooms to accomplish that.  What were we hoping to see at a show anchored by giant media conglomerates like Comcast (with 22m Xfinity subscribers and NBCUniversal networks) and TimeWarner Cable?  I think everyone was hoping to see some progress against the promise of a better digital future for the consumer—and despite how much attention the press gives all of the great digital living room start-ups and OTT video service providers, the vast majority of consumers still get their media from a Pay TV operator.  I guess my long-winded point is that if those new user experiences aren’t reaching the consumer thru cable operators, they aren’t really reaching the masses.

So with that as our lens, what did the 2012 Cableshow reveal about our future?  I would start with a theme of incremental improvement.  Comcast launched the Xfinity X1 platform with much fanfare on Monday, billing it as a major new platform and revolutionary break thru for the consumer.  While I agree it is a significant improvement from the operator’s point of view (lower long term capital requirements and lower operating expenses, faster roll-outs of UI improvements, etc), I am not sure the consumer got much at all.  He or she still uses a remote to turn on the system, the grid guide is still the default content discovery UI, and content is still presented to the consumer based on the way the operator deals with the business model (linear broadcast TV, VOD, OTT services) vs. the way people consume content (they want to watch something and the source is rather immaterial).  There are some nice use cases buried deep in the UX (i.e. after you search for a TV series, each episode can show multiple sources for acquiring the content from your DVR to VOD to a scheduled showing in the guide), but all those use cases are decidedly lean forward use cases, and the only recommendation engine is based on genre matching with no account of your viewing history, social networks, or even basic collaborative filtering (according the engineer I reviewed the demo with for an hour).  Seems a bit bleak if this is the future.

There were glimmers around the show floor of TV 2.0-style use cases making progress.  Nearly every vendor has some solution for TV Everywhere and multi-screen use cases in and out of the home.  Some vendors were selling platforms and SDKs to launch second screen tablet experiences, and the majority of the content creators were clearly trying to weave social networking into their go to market strategies for their content.  There were even some vendors making progress against perhaps the most difficult problem of all, Discovery, demonstrating semantic language searching capabilities and improvements in the UI for the delivery of recommendations.  There was great demo by Samsung of an embedded SmartTV app that allowed one of their TV's to access the full Cablevision service with no set top box (the Xbox and PS3 announcements for Verizon and Comcast are VOD services only)--a sign of things to come.  Ironically, the best visible progress I saw for the consumer was from a 3rd party second screen app that will re-launch itself in June—while not in a cable provided solution, at the least the consumer will be able to use the app in conjunction with their cable service.

So my take this week on the rather lightly attended 2012 Cable Show is that there were no big “a-ha’s” for the consumer, and while the large cable companies are making progress, they are moving slowly.

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