Comcast Takes the Remote
The reviled cable company wants to own your home
The pingpong table arrived on the 15th floor of Comcast’s corporate headquarters in downtown Philadelphia in about 2008. When the company invited local reporters for a viewing, none had trouble getting the significance. They also took note of the orange furniture and relaxed dress code, and quickly connected the dots. Internet culture liked pingpong. Comcast got a pingpong table. Comcast was embracing internet culture.
Eight years later, the software nerds and the mobileapp and data geeks have settled into more prosaic jobs on pingpong-free floors throughout the Comcast tower. On 35, Fraser Stirling is standing by his desk, palming a security camera. Its lens is set in a rectangular, anodized-aluminum enclosure that gives it a futuristic, almost Pixar-character profile. The camera will be available later this year to customers who pay Comcast for security-protection services. “It’s got a real nice feel,” he says, running his finger under the camera’s chin. “You’ll notice we designed it with a bit of personality, right?”
Stirling, 36, whose official title is senior vice president for hardware development, is broad-shouldered and bespectacled. His office has a turntable and a microscope and is strewn with prototypes of devices in various stages of development. As he gives a peek inside the company’s skunk works, he explains how he ended up working for Comcast, the giant provider of TV and internet services, owner of NBCUniversal, and historically one of the most despised brands in the U.S.
He says he’s fulfilling a childhood dream of designing beautiful things. Born and raised in Scotland, Stirling grew up playing rugby. “My father is a very traditional Scottish chap,” he says. “He suggested in no uncertain terms that I should find something more manly to do. In his eyes, ‘manly’ included fishing, moving rocks with my hands, or wrestling bears.”
Stirling defied his father and studied music technology and electronics in college and then spent eight years working for BSkyB, the London-based telecommunications company. In 2013 he moved to Silicon Valley to work for Intel’s experimental internet-based TV system, OnCue. Shortly after, the company sold OnCue to Verizon Communications. Soon, Stirling says, he found himself weighing competing job offers from Apple, the global paragon of product design, and Comcast, a product wasteland. Stirling chose Comcast. The challenge was more compelling.
Comcast has installed tens of millions of cable boxes, Wi-Fi routers, and other hardware in American homes over the years. These devices have been forgettable at best. Stirling hopes that’s about to change. Later this year, the company will begin rolling out a family of slimmeddown internet, TV, and home-security gadgets. The devices are designed according to a radical concept that’s largely gone untested in more than a half-century of cableTV history—that hardware doesn’t have to be hideous. “We’re trying to emphasize the importance of design,” Stirling says. “Hardware is a thing you can touch. It’s often the personification of a service or a brand.”
The new devices are designed to work in concert with X1—the software at the heart of Comcast’s strategy to keep its 22.4 million cable subscribers from cutting the cord and defecting to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. Think of X1 as the company’s own Android or iOS—a technological platform upon which an empire of software, hardware, and services can be built. Comcast initially designed X1 for a specific TV-related purpose. A few years ago the proliferation of cable channels, combined with the rapid expansion in the number of shows and movies available on demand from networks such as HBO, Showtime, and Starz, was overwhelming many viewers. Finding something to watch on TV felt exhausting.
Instead of just throwing every channel into a linear grid accessed by clicking up and down with a remote, X1 aggregates programming from hundreds of TV networks and online sources and arranges everything by genre. Sports. Movies. Children’s programming. News. There’s still a remote, but with X1 it’s voice-activated. You tell the system what you want. It shows you what’s available. The software is based in the cloud, meaning Comcast can update it without coming to your home. Since its release in 2012, X1 has become a hit.
Unlike most cable companies, Comcast has actually been gaining TV subscribers. In April the company announced that during the first quarter of 2016, video revenue jumped 4 percent, to $5.5 billion, and it added 53,000 video customers, its best result in nine years. In 2015 it made $8.2 billion in profit on $74 billion in revenue. Executives credit the new platform: “When people get X1, they watch more hours of TV, and they watch a broader selection of TV,” says Sam Schwartz, chief business development officer for Comcast Cable. “We can see how many channels on average people watch during a month, and it almost doubles.” Even other cable companies seem to like X1—Comcast has licensed the system to Cox Communications and Shaw Communications.
Comcast is installing 40,000 X1 boxes a day and expects half of its video customers to have the technology by Aug. 5, when it will face a high-profile test: the Olympics. Comcast’s NBC will air every event in Rio de Janeiro live on TV or online. Subscribers will be able to use X1 to search by event, athlete, or country, and get alerts when an American is close to winning gold. “Google organizes the world. Facebook connects people,” says Chief Executive Officer Brian Roberts. “Comcast is connecting our customers to the moments that matter in their life.”
The company says X1 has the potential to solve a broader problem now swallowing the modern home. American families keep adding more Wi-Fi-enabled devices to their lives, not just smartphones and tablets, but also “smart” thermostats, stereo systems, fire alarms, refrigerators, lights, locks, and toys. Trying to manage this riot of gadgets can be bewildering. Comcast’s solution: Hook everything up to X1 and manage the entire menagerie from your TV. “The home is a huge opportunity for us,” Schwartz says.
The notion of Comcast taking over more residential territory may seem terrifying. It has long ranked last or near last in consumer satisfaction surveys. (Tales of Kafkaesque customer interactions are an internet staple. For a sampling go to comcastsucks.org, or just Google “rep from hell.”) The company has been trying to fix some of the most obvious problems: It’s redesigning
“A lot of people think the cable guys don’t get it. Part of my role is to get Silicon Valley to understand that we think like they do. That we’re real”
hundreds of its service centers in a style that’s less highsecurity pawnshop and more Apple Store. (Step 1: Remove bulletproof glass.) It’s working on a mobile app that will allow customers to track the location and arrival time of home-service technicians. Philadelphia magazine has called the app “Uber for your cable guy.”
Comcast is after something much bigger than merely not being hated, though. It wants to be loved. “It sounds a bit daft coming from a guy with a Scottish accent,” Stirling says. “But we really are genuinely trying to create an emotional experience, whether that’s love, or whatever, like you have with your phone. We want people to be able to put something from Comcast in their study or their living room and people can look at it and go, ‘Oof, what is that? It’s amazing.’”
From the edge of his desk, Stirling grabs a prototype cable box. With X1, Comcast shifts the bulk of its customers’ TV activity— what shows they record on DVR, what
WrestleManias they order on pay-per-view—from the physical hardware into the cloud. As a result, the set-top boxes no longer need lots of hard drives. Comcast’s new box, which will arrive later this year, isn’t boxlike at all. It’s square, about the size of a pancake, and could pass as a trivet. Over the years, various companies have trademarked specific colors to codify their brand’s identity. Coke red. Home Depot orange. Tiffany blue. Comcast’s forthcoming gadgetry will come in customized hues. “This is our Comcast gray,” Stirling says, showing off a box. “We also have it in Comcast white.”
He puts down the trivet and continues his guided tour. The walls in the hallway outside his office are decorated with plaques displaying the company’s technology patents. They hang in long, densely packed rows, as if Comcast’s interior designer was a crazed inventor with a raging case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Construction cranes are visible across the street at the site of the 59-story Comcast Innovation and Technology Center, which will open sometime in 2018. Norman Foster, who also worked on Apple’s new doughnut-shaped headquarters, is the architect.
In an audiovisual lab, Stirling greets Tony Werner, president of technology and product for Comcast Cable. For a moment, they stand side by side, gazing down at a cluster of old Comcast cable boxes and routers from a few years ago, a reminder of their inglorious past. “This is where we came from,” Werner says. “This is where a lot of competition still is.” He looks at one particularly hefty set-top box. “Where do you want your microwave?” he jokes.
Werner’s swagger is fueled, in part, by the growing success of Comcast’s voice-activated remote control. In May 2015, CEO Roberts stood onstage in Chicago at the Internet & Television Expo, the cable industry’s recently rebranded annual gathering, and gave a demonstration. Holding the remote like a karaoke microphone, Roberts spoke commands that were promptly executed by X1 on a giant TV screen behind him. Instead of clicking back and forth through various menus to find the movie, TV show, or sports matchup you want to watch, Roberts explained, you could just say what you’re looking for. A few weeks before Roberts’s demonstration, Comcast executives had announced they were dropping the company’s $45 billion bid for Time Warner Cable. During his Chicago presentation, Roberts acknowledged the defeat and vowed to move on. “Our folks in the labs have been really amazing,” he said, holding up the remote. “Show me the Comcast–Time Warner Cable merger.” The screen behind him played a movie clip of a fiery explosion engulfing a house as bystanders scream and dive for cover.
Werner says Comcast initially planned to ship 10,000 of the voice remotes in the first year. But after sharp prodding from Roberts, the company ended up distributing 7 million. Comcast executives say that unlike with other voice-activated products—ahem, Siri— customers keep talking to it long after the novelty has worn off. “We’re now getting 180 million voice commands a month, and it’s growing,” Werner says.
Comcast already has more than 1,000 employees working on X1 in Denver, Washington, D.C., Silicon Valley, and Philadelphia. Every three months, they can take a week off to work on projects that could become new products. Some of the best X1 updates, Werner says, originated in these so-called lab weeks. He cites Kids Zone as an example. With a single voice command, a parent can lock her TV into a child-friendly programming mode, hand her kid the remote control, and go cook dinner or take a shower without the risk of returning to find her 8-year-old watching Masters of Sex.
Werner says much of what gets made in lab week never sees the light of day. Recently a team of engineers succeeded in hooking up a breathalyzer to X1. They rigged the system so that a viewer bingeing on, say,
Game of Thrones and Scotch-and-sodas could monitor his rising intoxication. If his blood-alcohol level gets too high, it could lock him out of certain potentially regrettable activities, such as watching too much E! “We’re never going to add a breathalyzer to the remote,” Werner says. “So why do we let them do that? It’s fun for everyone. And we’re experimenting with how to add different kinds of sensors into the system.”
The product team is designing thermostats, routers, and window sensors to hook up to X1, and Comcast says it’s happy to aggregate other companies’ Wi-Fienabled hardware into its system, too. It’s formed partnerships with several companies, including Nest Labs, which makes smart thermostats, August Home (smart locks), and Lutron Electronics (smart lighting systems), among others.
Comcast knows its technology, no matter how good, will run into a marketing problem. People don’t expect
nice things from cable companies. They expect crap. In 2015, Comcast began stamping its remotes with the words “Designed by Comcast in Philadelphia”— an homage to the slogan on the iPhone’s packaging, “Designed by Apple in California.” The move was widely mocked on social media. “They forgot to bracket it with a poop emoji on each side,” tweeted Ryan Freitas, director for product design at Uber. Comcast has since updated the slogan to “Designed with in Philadelphia.” ♥
For years, Comcast has been pouring advertising money into rebranding its cable, internet, and home services under the name Xfinity, using the tag line “The future of awesome.” The company is also stockpiling consumer-product gurus. Last year, Chris Satchell arrived at Comcast from Nike to serve as chief product officer. Satchell has a fetching British accent and looks like Vin Diesel. On the technology-panel circuit, he can somehow make Comcast sound less like a knuckle-dragging corporate cyclops and more like a boutique steampunk collective. “We’re in a long-term relationship with the customer. We’ve got to delight them,” he says. “How do we make you feel like you’re a Comcast family?”
Satchell talks a lot about transforming ambivalent subscribers into brand ambassadors. Along the way, he’s introduced a number of mantras into the company’s lexicon, such as: “CBB: Customers. Brand. Business.” Another: “Own the couch. Own the room. Own the home.”
The competition in home automation will be fearsome.
In 2014, Amazon started selling Echo, a cylindrical wireless device that in response to voice commands can play music, provide weather reports, adjust your thermostat, and order a ride from Uber. In May, Google announced a competing product—a chatty virtual assistant housed in a voice-activated device called Google Home. And Apple is reportedly working on a Siripowered home-automation hub.
Comcast never really needed a product-driven triumph to make money, says Joseph DiStefano, the author of Comcasted: How Ralph and Brian Roberts Took
Over America’s TV, One Deal at a Time. “They always observed the technology dispassionately,” he says. “They were not obsessed by it. Technology was their servant, not their master. They didn’t want to be the guys spending all the extra money that might or might not develop a market.”
Comcast executives insist that’s no longer the case. “When I started at Comcast, the official strategy was ‘Hey, we’ll let other people cut their teeth and innovate, and then we’ll be a fast follow.’ And even fast was kind of ersatz fast,” says Sree Kotay, chief technology officer for Comcast Cable, who joined the company in 2007. “That has shifted in deep and profound ways. Now our mantra is to create the best-looking products, the best services, the best journey, the best experience in the world. Not just the best for a cable company in North America.”
“A lot of people think the cable guys don’t get it,” says Schwartz, the chief business development officer. “Part of my role is to get Silicon Valley to understand that we think like they do. That we’re real. That they can partner with us. And that we have the platform to do this.”
On the condition that we don’t reveal certain details, including what it looks like, Stirling has agreed to show off a prototype of a wireless, voice-activated device that might someday allow a Comcast customer to holler commands at X1 without having to walk around with the remote control in hand.
“Welcome to the dungeon,” Stirling says. “This is where the magic happens.” The dungeon is a windowless laboratory high up in the Comcast tower. He stands a few feet away from the prototype and calls out one of Tom Cruise’s most famous movie lines. “Show me the money!” he says. The TV screen overhead jumps to the 1996 film Jerry Maguire.
“What is the weather like?” Stirling asks. A report pops up on the screen. “The difference between anything we would do in voice and what Echo does,” he says, “is that we would attach it to an anchor point. Which is TV and content. It’s linked to a broader service.”
In the laboratory next door to the dungeon, the product team is working on a Comcast-designed outdoor Wi-Fi hub, which it’s placed inside a copper box the size of a mini-refrigerator. The box is designed for testing how new products perform in isolation. During other stages of the development cycle, however, engineers need to know how a gadget will interact with other devices in the home. To handle that kind of work, Comcast began renting a house in the suburbs of Philadelphia last year and turned it into a six-bedroom, three-bath Wi-Fi laboratory. “It’s awesome,” Stirling says. “It reminds me of the Addams Family house because it’s so big.”
Homeowners tend to only notice Wi-Fi when it’s not working and remember how difficult it can be to get it running again. Comcast engineers are developing a new product, known internally as Smart Internet, that would allow customers to monitor Wi-Fi performance in the home using a simple diagnostic control panel on the X1 menu. In theory, parents could use the Smart Internet tool to shut down Wi-Fi access in their kids’ bedrooms at a certain hour each night or to identify which smart gadget has lost its mind and is disturbing the rest of the network. The goal is to demystify internet performance and perhaps to empower users to look slightly less clueless in front of their children.
For years, futurists have predicted the eventual demise of the living room TV as it’s pushed aside by smarter devices: mobile phones. Tablets. Virtualreality goggles. Comcast’s vision for X1 would restore TV’s centrality, transforming it from a device for consuming entertainment into a far-reaching command center, capable of monitoring and controlling every networked object in your home and all the invisible spaces in between. “Right now you turn off your TV when it’s no longer giving you value,” says Matthew Strauss, executive vice president of video services for Comcast Cable. “We’re going to change that. Eventually, your TV will always be on.”
The X1 remote