Comcast introduces open-cable platform

If the cable operator's efforts to partner with leading gadget makers are successful, those set-top boxes could be a thing of the past. Photo: Comcast's AnyPlay device

LAS VEGAS--Few probably would have expected the chief executive of the world's largest cable company to stand on stage at the Consumer Electronics Show and announce that we no longer need cable boxes.

But that's exactly what Brian Roberts of Comcast did here during his keynote speech.

He's OK with it because he has something bigger planned. He used his speech--the first ever by a cable industry executive at CES--to announce the beginning of an "open" cable services platform called Tru2way, which enables cable service to be integrated directly into a variety of consumer electronics devices. Initial partners include Motorola, TiVo, Intel, Samsung Electronics, Microsoft, LG Electronics, Panasonic, Cisco Systems, and Sun Microsystems.

When a consumer buys a device with Tru2way, she can bring it home, plug it in, and get all interactive cable services available from a traditional set-top box.

"It's a totally different business model," Roberts said. "Virtually the entire cable industry will support Tru2way by the end of this year." By that time, supported devices will already be available, he said.

The platform is Java-based with open APIs, so that software developers can write applications once that will work across nearly every device and any cable system.

TiVo is demonstrating here at CES how its DVR, or digital video recording, service works as an application on a Comcast set-top box, and Microsoft is working to enable all cable services to be received directly to a Media Center PC without need for a cable set-top box, according to Roberts.

Brian Roberts Brian Roberts

Next, Roberts introduced Toshihiro Sakamoto, president of Panasonic AVC Networks, who gave his own keynote here Monday, to discuss how Tru2way will be enabled on two Panasonic high-definition televisions. A 42-inch and a 52-inch TV branded with Tru2way will have cable services built right in, so no cable box is needed, and only one remote is required, Sakamoto said.

The pair also brought out the that Sakamoto showed off during his speech.

Comcast's chief promised to outdo satellite at the high-definition content game. "Comcast will put 1,000 HD choices in every Comcast HD home by the end of the year," Roberts said. "What satellite says they'll offer pales in comparison."

Part of that promise is based on a new system architecture Comcast will soon incorporate, called Project Infinity, which Roberts said will enable 6,000 movies to be delivered "instantaneously" on demand every month, half of them in high definition.

To introduce a new online-entertainment portal, Roberts brought TV and radio host Ryan Seacrest on stage. Called Fancast, the site enables users to find any piece of entertainment. It will allow streaming of certain shows and downloads of movies, and it will link to the iTunes Store, if it doesn't have it. Fancast will also show when a TV show is playing and make scheduled DVR recordings, it will find where a movie is playing and link to to buy tickets.

To enable faster downloads of HD content, Roberts announced that Comcast is testing out wideband, a faster option than broadband that would enable a 2-hour HD movie to download in 4 minutes. Wideband uses four or more standard analog channels at once to achieve speeds of up to 100 megabits per second. The technology will be rolled out to "millions" by the end of this year, with more to come, "if it's as popular as we expect," Roberts said.

Comcast, the nation's fourth-largest phone service provider, also previewed two services that integrate the company's other offerings.

The first is designed to bring iPhone-style "visual voice mail" to the computer. Called SmartZone Communication Center, phone and cable Internet customers will be able to see all their e-mail and voice mail messages in one in-box.

The second upcoming telephony service is caller ID for the TV. When a call comes in, the caller's phone number appears directly on the TV screen.

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