Comcast Shapes Up Its Streaming App To Try To Catch Up With Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go


Comcast, the largest cable operator in the U.S., may also be the last cable operator of its size in the U.S. to significantly tune up its streaming service for the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch. But today the company starts playing catch-up with a revamped Xfinity TV app.

To chase after faster-moving competition and make its mobile, on-demand video distribution more efficient, Comcast is enlisting Elemental Technologies, a Portland, Oregon-based startup that provides robust video transcoding and compression solutions for companies such as CBS, Disney, and PBS. 

According to Sam Blackman, CEO of Elemental Technologies, Xfinity's upgraded under-the-hood tech isn't solely aimed at improving video quality for Comcast's customers, though. Rather, it's trying to rival competitors who are already deeply invested in the online and mobile space. Netflix boasts more than 23 million subscribers, plus a suite of apps for iOS and Android; in just seven months since launch, Hulu Plus has surpassed 700,000 members; and there are channel-specific offerings, such as HBO Go, which has already reached more than 3 million users. In the industry, such content providers are referred to as "over the top" solutions, and they're proving that service providers like Comcast and Time Warner are fast falling behind.

"Obviously Hulu is looking for a new home, while Netflix continues to grow incredibly rapidly even if they do make some decisions that annoy their customers. Netflix is in this very heavy customer acquisition mode, so they want to spend a lot of money on video quality and bandwidth to give a great experience," Blackman says. "What we've seen is that service providers like Comcast are responding extremely fast to this over-the-top threat from Hulu and Netflix."

Blackman believes that if it wasn't for the remarkable growth of Hulu and Netflix, that Comcast wouldn't have felt forced to play catch-up. "I can tell you that Comcast rolling out a new service like the Xfinity app—before this over-the-top threat, it would've been a multiyear [process], slowly rolled out in test market after test market process," he says. "But because of the over-the-top push, they're all of a sudden moving very very quickly. It's really interesting to see these giant companies move quickly because of the impending threat to over-the-top and cord cutting."

Yet despite an upgraded app, Comcast has a long way to go before it can be counted among its online counterparts. While Comcast is certainly a household name in cable, on the web, that title indisputably belongs to Netflix, which has seen well over two-thirds of its customers streaming content online.

"Because of the amount of video coming out [online], and the amount of assets Hulu and Netflix have that are making them a compelling alternative, Comcast had to find a way to get their assets online on these apps as fast as possible," Blackman says.

Good luck.

[Image: Flickr user vitor roa]

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  • Wize Adz

    As a current Comcast internet subscriber, and former Comcast cable TV subscriber, I have a number of questions:
    1. Is there any amount of money that I can pay so that I don't have to watch commercials?  There's no amount of money that I could possibly pay Hulu to let me skip the commercials, but Netflex doesn't require me to pay to sit through advertising.  I'd be happy to pay extra to avoid wasting my time with commercials -- are you interested in my money?
    2. When I had a Comcast DVR, it wouldn't let me hide channels that I didn't subscribe to.  This was a big waste of my time, because I had to flip past channels and mentally filter out "useless shows that I didn't pay for" from "useless shows that I did pay for.  They would let me hide the names of pornographic shows, but I still had to flip past them and the hundred or so other channels I'm not interested in.  This struck me as Comcast putting their commercial interest in front of my interests as a customer, and it was a factor in ditching the unit.  Does xfinity require me to put up with the same kind of BS?
    3. Does the set-top-box for xfinity still suck power?  I measured the power consumption of my Comcast DVR, and it was 41 watts when it was turned "on" and 40 watts when it was turned "off".  When I installed a power strip to control this power consumption, I found that the DVR took 4+ hours to download the list of channels, including that list of channels that I wasn't subscribed to.  In a world where light bulbs use less than 20 watts, I couldn't justify the electric bill (nearly $4/mo just for the power, not even counting the $60/mo for the content) just to flip past channels that I wasn't interested in and watch boatloads of commercials and maybe some of the content that I was actually interested in.  Will Comcast's new set top boxes be any more power efficient?

    As a parent with a full-time job who is enrolled in a night-school program, I found myself in a situation where my time is much more valuable to me than Comcast seems to think it is, and my wife is just as busy.  So, we dropped the cable TV service.  I guess we're in the minority, though, since Comcast is still in business...