How the battle for TV's future could take over your whole house

Comcast’s Matt Strauss Comcast/Business Insider/Hollis Johnson

Comcast doesn’t believe that the future of TV is apps.

That’s according to executive VP Matt Strauss, who heads up video services.

The reason Strauss is skeptical, beyond presumably not wanting to give up power to the likes of Apple, is that he sees an “app” as a metaphor for a channel. It’s an advanced channel that lets you do things like watch on demand, but it’s still a channel when you get down to it.

And channels aren’t what people want.

They want a fundamentally different experience, he says. They want something like X1, the system Comcast is betting will secure a new generation of cable lovers and put all the “cable is dead” chatter to bed.

What is X1?

If you haven’t used X1, think of it like an advanced cable box — one that smartly surfaces the shows you want and responds to your voice commands via its remote.

But X1 isn’t the actual cable box; it’s technically a cloud-based system that can work not only from that fancy new box, but also — with more limited functionality — on your phone and tablet.

X1 is a cross between an advanced TV guide and a virtual assistant, and Comcast thinks it will compete with the likes of Amazon’s Alexa-powered Echo and Apple’s Siri-powered Apple TV.

Why are these three things competitors? They all use “digital assistant” software to make using hardware like a TV or a speaker easier. But more importantly, all of them have the ambition of being the center of your “smart home.”

Sports app medal countComcast

Your future house

Comcast’s general thesis is that some platform will power the homes of the future. You’ll talk to it, and it will pull up the video you want to watch or the music you want to listen to, or even start your coffee. The question is who will win that battle.

Strauss thinks the TV is the natural starting place for the “hub” — though he might be a tad biased. In Comcast’s world, the TV is the center of your home.

The X1 is having its big introduction party during the Olympics, with a bunch of new features meant to transform how you watch and wring as much value as possible from the games. These features mostly revolve around different ways to personalize the games: following different sports, countries, or athletes; surfacing stats you want; or dropping you right in the action.

But what’s interesting about these features isn’t that they’re for the Olympics, but that they begin to reimagine the way you surf cable.

The big picture

Strauss wants X1 to be the “aggregator of aggregators,” to tie together your cable package and other services like Netflix (which will come to the platform “later this year“). X1 will pluck what you want from it or let you go into individual apps. No more tyranny of apps — or channels, for that matter.

Strauss is dreaming big with X1. I asked him whether there was a ceiling of how much TV you could watch.

“Maybe you never turn off your TV,” he said.

He sees a future X1 understanding what you need at that moment, whether it’s a primetime drama, background music, an update of what’s trending on Twitter, cooking instructions, and so on.

Home screenComcast

Two-part plan

X1 shows how Comcast thinks about the future of cable TV and how it means to conquer it.

The first portion of Comcast’s X1 plan is to integrate on-demand and live TV into a platform that does away with the old channel system. On-demand viewing on the X1 is already 40% higher than on its previous system, Strauss says.

Apple is reportedly working on something similar as well and wants to build a kind of advanced TV guide that pulls together content services like Netflix, HBO, and ESPN.

But the second part of Comcast’s plan is to use voice — and cable — as a foundation to manage your entire home. That goal pits it against not just Apple, but likely Amazon, Google, and even Microsoft. You can bet they will all be vying for that spot.

Comcast seems to believe that whatever robot controls your house in the future will likely control your TV — and that direct relationship with the customer is valuable since without it, the cable company begins to feel like the unnecessary middleman between the people who actually make the shows and the people who watch them. No one wants to become a dumb pipe.

So for Comcast, winning the future of TV could mean winning the entire house in the process.