Why Comcast’s ‘Xfinity Remote’ Could Be More Than Just Another App

I like to think I’m past the point of raving about something just because it is an app — and I’m not planning to rave here about the still-in-progress Xfinity Remote coming to browsers and devices in the not-too-distant future. But of all the possibilities for consumers at The Cable Show going on now in LA, this one from Comcast (NSDQ: CMCSA) has the potential to enhance the viewing experience in a way I haven’t seen since the Slingbox. That’s because it comes the closest to cracking the code for a wireless multimedia remote/program guide without requiring install backflips, workarounds or compromises. It includes — or promises to include — the kind of info access we expect from a PC or handset but developed for a form factor designed to be as much a TV companion as an alternative screen.

It is the kind of app we should expect from video distributors but don’t because we are far too used to them playing Lucy to our Charlie Brown with software that may look slick in a demo but fails to deliver in reality or to be distributed in anything close to real-time. Why is Xfinity Remote different?

Well, it helps when the boss thinks it makes sense. Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts, who admits he never took to video on a laptop, got an iPad — and a variation of portable video religion with it. A variation because for him it still isn’t about making video portable (although he gets why that matters for others) as much as it is seeing how devices like the iPad can be used to enhance the viewing experience and, as Roberts says, to “liberate” subscribers from the set-top.

It also helps that Roberts thinks Comcast and the cable industry need to show some urgency, “to speed up the pace of innovation.” The coding for the version being demoed was finished at the show the night before Roberts’ video demo was show, the app was being live demoed on the floor of the show as soon as his session was done — and Comcast execs expect at least one version to be available to subscribers in this quarter. Given the years it can sometimes take to turn an idea into usable reality in the cable world, that’s moving fast. It helps that iPhone and now iPad users are already trained to expect constant iteration of apps.

It might have been more expected to come out first with a Fancast Xfinity video player for the iPad. But going this route lets Comcast take advantage of a lot of work that’s already been done with navigation, search, program guide design and the adoption of EBIF (Enhanced Binary Interchange Format). EBIF is the cable industry’s interactive TV standard; it isn’t omnipresent yet but EBIF apps can be used in millions of Comcast households. One example of EBIF at work and play: users can see when Comcast subscribers in their contacts are online and through the app, suggest they check out a show or a movie. If the other subscriber agrees, the app sends a message to his or her set-top box to switch channels to that show.

The version Comcast demoed Wednesday is based on Safari for iPad, managed by messages sent from the browser to set-tops through EBIF. The company also plans to submit a native iPad app to the iTunes store. Comcast doesn’t charge subs for its mobile app that allows management of various services including remote programming of DVRs in some markets, and programming guides for TV and VOD, and this one is expected to be free as well.

Roberts told me after he wowed the cable crowd by introducing the app that the iPad is just the beginning and we can expect to see it ripple across devices; he also said he expects other cable operators will offer versions. Other cable CEOs I’ve talked to were impressed with what Comcast showed and the potential for them. Talking with Roberts, it’s clear he is flat-out passionate about Xfinity Remote — that it can be done, that it’s being done, what it can do.

Now Comcast has to deliver on the promise.