For Comcast's Roberts, X1 Marks the Spot

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How does a big cable company like Comcast remain relevant in an era when Internet companies get all the attention? Comcast CEO Brian Robert says he’s focused on innovation and customer service.

During Comcast’s fourth quarter earnings call with analysts, Roberts called attention to the importance of the rollout of X1 (formerly Xcalibur), the company’s effort to move program guide and other information for subscribers in “the cloud,” where storage is infinite and changes can be made quickly, from the set-top box, where storage is limited and change often needs to be made one home at a time.

With X1, program guides can offer very individualized choice, including kind of recommendation engine that Netflix fans admire. And that could be just the beginning, Roberts said.

“My view is that in 2012, X1 is a beginning of a new way of communicating with the television device, which is coming from the cloud, not solely from the box,” said Roberts.

He said this year X1 will be in hundreds of thousands of homes in multiple markets, a small number for Comcast which has millions of homes. However Roberts has big expectations. “It will radically improve the experience, in my opinion, over time,” he said.

In addition, and more importantly, X1 is “creating the unlocking mechanism to future innovation, which will then reside on the best servers in the cloud that can be upgraded state of the art, without having to ever come back to your house and can be done quickly, not over years, but over weeks and months,” Roberts said.  “Those UI [user interface] changes and other things that we want to do as we create better search products and we have the need with more On Demand.

X1 is also a key to another part of Comcast’s strategy by giving the company access to devices other than the TV set.

“We obviously are not operating in a vacuum, and we are very cognizant of the exciting changes in the consumer electronics space. And we want to position our company to take advantage of the innovation, not trying to necessarily fight it and want to make it as simple for our customers as possible,” Roberts said.

He noted the Comcast has an agreement with Xbox and is working with Samsung. “We’ll be working with others throughout the year, and I think our Comcast technology group is doing a super job of changing the way we historically look at how we deliver our products to consumers. And so getting things into the cloud out of the cable box will have broad implications over time and 2012 is a year to make it happen and get it started,” he said.

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