Brian Roberts stood before a press gaggle at The Cable Show earlier this year with a certain swagger about him. The Comcast chief and CableLabs chairman was there to show off Starz’s new iTV app, Enteract Now. Like Time Warner Cable’s Start Over service, it lets viewers restart a show that’s already in progress.
But Roberts also urged those scribbling around him to investigate demos of other iTV apps on the show floor. The implication: Reports of interactive TV’s death in the 1990s were greatly exaggerated. What’s different this time? Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format, or EBIF, which lets third-party developers create their own set-top applications that will work on millions of existing set-tops. Another difference? Comcast’s EBIF endorsement.
To be sure, Comcast’s commitment to EBIF — coordinated ably by CTO Tony Werner — tells cable nets and third-party developers that the largest MSO has their backs. That’s vital — especially as Comcast and other MSOs talk about the potential for a cable-branded "App Store," similar to the one driving sales of Apple’s iPhone.
But as Werner explains it, first things first. "Whether the TV is the kind of device where you want as many apps as you might have on an iPhone, nobody knows," he says. "We’re trying to crawl before we walk."
Comcast, which has its own caller-ID-on-TV EBIF app and more in the works, also is creating templates designed to help app developers. But in the near term, Werner said EBIF apps likely will fall into three categories: 1) Advertising apps that enable polling, telescoping and other consumer feedback important to sellers (partly tied to work by Canoe Ventures); 2) Navigation extensions that add new features to the programming guide (like the Starz app); and 3) Widgets that enable e-commerce, customer service and anything else developers dream up.
Right now, the idea is to test out a lot of ideas. "Over time, who knows what in there would be the killer app?" Werner says, adding that the focus is "really to see what works."
Starz said its EBIF app, Enteract Now, took just days to build, using tools from a Comcast subsidiary.
As of this writing, Comcast has yet to announce hard deployment of Enteract Now.