Comcast’s ‘Xcalibur’ Seeks The Edge On Google TV

Google TV on Sony

Comcast (NSDQ: CMCSA) is testing a new set-top box that would bring together Web and TV programming, reports The Wall Street Journal. Little is known about the product because Comcast hasn’t decided whether to deploy it more broadly, but in success it could be potent competitor to the struggling Google (NSDQ: GOOG) TV.

What little is known about Xcalibur. The device is said to bring a “smattering” of Web video and “basic connections” to social networks, but not access to the full internet. It also allows the user to search for content across live, recorded and on-demand options.

Doesn’t that sound a lot like Google TV? Kinda, though the devil is in the details here. Yes, Google TV has attempted to bring together the Web and TV experiences, but there are no restrictions to internet access as XCalibur seems to have. That’s not necessarily an advantage for Google TV given that most of the internet’s massive selection isn’t really relevant to the average consumer. If the “smattering” that Comcast gives access to is expertly curated and easily accessed, that could be a plus.

Also, what’s missing from the WSJ description of this product is what kind of remote control is needed; the bulky accessories Google TV has introduced have not won over many critics, who say simplicity is essential for a mainstream breakthrough. Nailing the user interface is also key, and this has never been a strong point of cable operators.

Does the FCC know about this? One would hope so for Comcast’s sake. It’s been widely reported that the FCC’s primary concern with regard to approving the company’s acquisition of NBC Universal (NYSE: GE) is the potential for discriminatory practices in internet video. A product like XCalibur would be just the kind of device where Comcast could conceivably promote its own online offerings (Hulu, Fancast, etc.) at the expense of competitors (Netflix). Comcast is reportedly engaged in dialogue with FCC on a number of fronts, so it’s a safe bet XCalibur came up in the conversation, at least hypothetically.

Why is Comcast doing this? This probably has less to do with wowing consumers and more with being able to package a “double play” product that allows customer service representatives to sell video and broadband together effectively. Don’t be surprised if there’s even a third prong to this that somehow ties in video delivery for mobile subscriptions.

About that brand name… XCalibur is actually its internal name at Comcast, while it is known publicly as Spectrum to the lone market where the MSO is conducting testing, in Augusta, Ga. Given how much Comcast has been Xcoriated for the branding of its Xfinity service, let’s hope they think a little harder this time if and/or before this product is rolled out.

How Xpensive will Xcalibur be? WSJ doesn’t report what if anything Comcast is charging for this product in August, but the price point is a crucial issue here. Subscribers content with their existing set-top boxes would need to be incentivized to swap those out for a new one. Given the product would likely guarantee uptake of both video and broadband, the best guess is that the device wouldn’t be anything steep enough to discourage the double play.

Why this is worth noting. Anything Comcast does to innovate video delivery is signifcant given they have the largest footprint across the U.S. as compared with cable, satellite and telcos. As massive as the company is, they’ve always been nimble enough to innovate, as we’ve already seen with its coming iPad app. They’ve expanded their corps of engineers in recent years from a few hundred to over 5,000 because CEO Brian Roberts understands that the company will need to play offense to fend off over-the-top challengers.

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