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Comcast CEO takes design lessons from Apple

CEO Brian Roberts says he's learned from Apple about how to "take really complicated things and make them simple, make them fun, make them beautiful and easy."

Brian Roberts, CEO of Comcast
Marguerite Reardon/CNET

With all the chatter about Apple upending the TV business as it did the music industry, you'd think the incumbent cable players were incapable of redefining the TV user experience. Comcast CEO Brian Roberts begs to differ. In an interview with Fortune, Roberts said he's taking lessons from Apple in how to "take really complicated things and make them simple, make them fun, make them beautiful and easy."

Read: CNET's Apple HDTV rumor roundup

He continued, "As I think about where I'd like to see us go, it is absolutely to take this overwhelming amount of content choices -- now with the Internet so many more choices -- and make them personalized, make them easy to interact with and have anytime on any device."

Of course, that doesn't mean Comcast is declining to work with the computer industry, including Apple, to create a better user experience for navigating TV and Internet content and services. Like other cable providers, such as Time Warner, Comcast has the pipes as well as its own premium content, especially after its acquisition of NBC Universal last year.

Fortune also probed Roberts on ways that he might take advantage of what the combination of technology, content, and data from customers can render.

I was recently in Silicon Valley, and somebody said to us, "Every idea you've heard about, someday is going to happen." None of those ideas are necessarily bad; they just were way ahead of their time, too expensive, maybe a little quirky. But we now have tablets: You touch them, things happen. Software is changing everything. So you have to reinvent your company all the time and reinvent the business model. If commerce, and knowledge of your behavior and your desire -- with privacy very much top of mind -- can make it easier to consume content, then that's a winner. We're playing with voice technology that lets me talk into my remote and say, "Find movies, dramas, high definition, that my kids would like," and boom! -- up come answers. You click and you watch. Those are the kinds of things we're working on that I think have great promise.

For now, the TV interaction model from the cable providers is still mostly in the hunt-and-peck age of navigating programming. The experience on PCs, tablets, and smartphones is far better. For example, the Xfinity TV Player app allows Comcast subscribers to download movies and TV shows from Encore, MoviePlex, Showtime, and Starz. 

In 2013 the race to reinvent the TV user experience will be in high gear, and there will be lots of experimentation and attempts to finally eliminate the clunky remote control. As Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a recent interview, "When I go into my living room and turn on the TV, I feel like I have gone backwards in time by 20 to 30 years." 

In the meantime, Comcast and its cable competitors, as well as Apple, Google, Microsoft, or other inventive companies, will be trying to take the complexity out of using a TV, in the context of all the other digital devices in the hands of consumers. But as long as the practice of forced bundling of pay TV content exists, the path to a more universal solution will be difficult to navigate.