Why is Comcast Web Serious

Not happy with 2.5 billion page views a month, Comcast (CMCSA) is looking to enhance its position as one of the top Internet destinations in the US.

And as it does so, Comcast challenges the traditional Internet names such as Yahoo (YHOO) and Google (GOOG), by moving into their (proverbial) domain, by offering similar services such as rich email, visual voice mail and video sharing sites.

Comcast has realized that it doesn’t need Internet giants, if it needs to make a billion dollars in advertising, as CEO Brian Roberts claimed recently.

The Philadelphia-based broadband and cable services provider today announced a deal with email software vendor Zimbra, and will offer a customized and fairly sophisticated email client (SmartZone) to all its 12.5 million broadband customers.

The sizzling broadband subscriber growth hasn’t really translated into huge page view growth for Comcast. According to BusinessWeek, over the past 12 months, its traffic actually went down 5 percent. It needed to do something to reverse the trend, and email is a good place to start.

While many consumers choose to ignore the Comcast.net portal, the take-up rate for Comcast email is fairly high. By offering an enhanced email experience, Comcast is betting that it can attract these same consumers to Comcast.net website and keep the page views growing.

Zimbra is one of the many start-ups Comcast is teaming up with to offer enhanced services. Plaxo and a bunch of other companies are part of this effort by Comcast to offer enhanced services, that will be managed by Hewlett-Packard (HWP).

The new email service, while not available till later this year, will be a welcome change for Comcast users. The Zimbra-built email client marries the email and calendaring applications with visual voice mail, and eventually will tie into other Comcast triple play services.

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For instance, it is not difficult to imagine that in the near future, you could add to your calendar your desire to watch an on-demand movie, say next Friday. And you can turn your TV on, the movie is ready for you to go. That, however, is in the future – for now email and a voicemail unified messaging center will suffice.

The emergence of triple play – voice, video and data – services will puts broadband service providers at an advantage over pure-play Internet services.

In the mid-1990s, it was the Internet companies like Yahoo that were seen as the one with all the answers, at least as far as carriers were concerned. Yahoo’s partnership with AT&T, and MSN deals with other operators were admissions by access providers that they didn’t have the skills to cater to the Internet needs of the consumers.

Not any more: IBM, HP, and pretty much any company is happy to do all the dirty work for carriers. And start-ups like Zimbra are all too happy to give them the tools to compete with traditional Internet players.

Don’t get me wrong: Comcast and others are not doing this from the goodness of their heart. There is a lot of money at stake here.

There is a growing realization on the part of carriers that companies like Yahoo and Google are the ones who have relationships with customers, and as a result have little or no loyalty to carriers. The prospect of being just a dumb pipe scares the carriers, so they are looking at current partnerships closely. Remember AT&T-Yahoo fracas a few months back?

Carriers have also realized that they need to attract more users to their websites, and earn some advertising dollars. If in the process the consumers get better services – nothing wrong with that.

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