How Comcast Could Build A Better iPad

DonohueI’ve been thinking a lot this week about something Comcast Chief Software Architect Sree Kotay told me last September about the future of mobile devices.

“If you think the [Apple] iPad is the be-all, end-all .. ,” Kotay said during an interview at his Comcast Labs office in Philadelphia. Kotay, after glancing at a member of Comcast’s communications team, didn’t name the company that he thought could build a device better than the iPad. But as Comcast moves closer to the launch of a “mobile-first” product — suggesting this week that it will exercise its right to pursue an MVNO [mobile virtual network operator] deal with Verizon — I’m convinced that Comcast will attempt to build a tablet more compelling than the iPad itself.

When Cablevision launched Wi-Fi phone service Freewheel earlier this year, it pitched subscribers the Motorola G smartphone. While the Android phone costs just $100, and boasts that it has the “sharpest 4.5-inch display in its class,” the device can’t hold a candle to devices like the iPhone, iPad or Android devices like Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones and tablets.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts told analysts this week that it would take six months to activate the MVNO agreement with Verizon. “We’re going to trial some things and test some things after we activate, and we’ll update people as that progresses. It’s an opportunity to take the network and the investments we’ve made … and see if we can continue relationships and product innovation that the team is working on,” Roberts said on Comcast’s third-quarter earnings call.

Comcast has raised the bar in the cable industry when it comes to the deployment of next-generation set-tops, routers, and user interfaces like X1. Take a look at images of some of the next-gen customer premise equipment that it will market through retail stores.

XfinityComcast needs to market a device stronger than the Motorola G to compete against AT&T and Verizon. Look for Comcast to work with a major CE manufacturer to design its own mobile devices capable of delivering video and data to subscribers using both Wi-Fi and LTE networks.

Potential partners include Samsung, which helped Comcast deliver 4K programming to IP-connected TVs, and Technicolor, a set-top supplier that has also pitched cable operators a line of MediaTouch tablets for more than five years. China’s Huawei is another potential manufacturer of Xfinity tablets and smartphones.

Comcast Mobile WiFi NetworkPatent applications from Comcast such as “Mobile Wi-Fi Network,” and “Mapping and bridging wireless networks to provide better service,” may offer some clues on how Comcast could shake things up.

There’s also a good chance that Comcast will team up with other U.S. cable MSOs, including CableWiFi partners such as Cox Communications, on a mobile-first product.

It’s been more than two years since former Jefferies & Co. analyst Tom Seitz predicted that “cable will enter the wireless market in a disruptive, WiFi/MVNO, manner, in the foreseeable future.”

In the late 1990s, a group of U.S. cable MSOs teamed up on a joint satellite TV venture called PrimeStar to fend off competition from DirecTV and Dish Network. I often wonder if major cable MSOs will team up again on a mobile version of a company like PrimeStar, relying on licensed and unlicensed spectrum.

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— Steve