In contrast to IBM's legendary strategic misstep of ceding the onscreen personal computer experience to Microsoft, Comcast CEO Roberts reiterated Monday -- in both word and deed -- that the cable operator will jealously guard and guide the onscreen gateway to the world of advanced television and other services.
While Microsoft is a supplier of set top-box software to Comcast, Roberts' comments served to demonstrate that in the world of TV, Microsoft is just another supplicant pleading for the attention of the nation's largest operator of cable TV systems. More evidence came in the form of a newly announced transaction with the ailing TV software supplier
Though a Microsoft executive doesn't see any particular danger to Microsoft from Liberate, one analyst does. "Liberate had basically fallen off the face of the earth as a competitive threat," says Josh Bernoff, principal analyst at Forrester Research. But on Monday, says Bernoff, "it suddenly became a whole lot more important."
At issue is the software enabling customers of Comcast and other cable operators to receive, and to navigate through, various advanced services.
Speaking at the Smith Barney Citigroup Global Entertainment, Media & Telecommunications conference in Arizona Monday, Roberts emphasized the importance of a navigation system -- and Comcast's efforts to keep it under its firm control.
Roberts talked about Comcast's desire to differentiate itself through its technology. He noted Comcast's partnership with Microsoft -- which resulted in the deployment of Microsoft's Foundation Edition set-top software in certain advanced cable boxes used by Comcast customers in the state of Washington -- as well as Comcast's control of a joint venture with
Gemstar-TV Guide International
( GMST) to develop an interactive onscreen programming guide.
"As we move more and more into an Internet-type feeling on your television in a digital world," said Roberts, "we know that the navigation system is critical. And whether it's video navigation with lots of screens and multiple choices ... or whether it's someday voice navigation, we want to be in control of the consumer's experience, not be using a third party."
Comcast got a little more of that control Monday with the announcement that, with the newly private cable operator
, it was buying the North American assets of Liberate for $82 million.
Liberate "is developing a software platform which is intended to provide cable operators with a flexible platform to add new digital cable products and applications," the companies explained Monday. "This platform will become increasingly important as digital cable products continue to evolve and interactive features become more widespread."
"Comcast is leading the way in developing and deploying new cable entertainment and communications products, and purchasing Liberate's North American assets will give us greater control over the software platform that will help drive new features that distinguish us from other providers," Comcast Executive Vice President Steve Silva said in a statement. "Liberate's technology will help us better integrate existing features -- including video on demand, digital video recorders and high-definition television -- on consumers' set-top boxes."
Ed Graczyk, director of marketing for Microsoft TV, says he believes that the Liberate deal enables Comcast to integrate Liberate's software, called middleware, with Microsoft's Foundation Edition software. Foundation Edition, says Graczyk, was designed as a core "building block" software, and gaining Liberate's assets, he says, gives Comcast an in-house development team to build on top of Foundation Edition.
"Two to three years ago, we definitely competed with Liberate," says Graczyk. "Then they imploded."
But Bernoff views the situation differently. "It's a serious threat to Microsoft, because now you have a development shop that's completely under control of Comcast," he says. "The combination of that plus Gemstar/TV Guide's program guide looks like a pretty good answer for the question of 'Where is Comcast going?'"
As for the question of where Comcast is going -- a company spokesman declined to comment for this story -- it's obvious that the company's ambitions lie far beyond the set-top box. Roberts said as much Monday in his description of what Comcast engineers were working on in the lab: "OK, what company can take this crazy world of technological innovation and change gadgets all the time, and bring entertainment and communication ... choice and control, and bring it all together for you in a seamless easy-to-use way?"
The idea was to "make the home experience one company you can call," he said. "They have all the products; they're on the cutting edge."
While Roberts never got around to naming the company, one assumes it's headquartered in Philadelphia, not Redmond.