Last week’s inaugural CableNEXT event drew more than 80 speakers to the Santa Clara Convention Center, including Comcast CTO Tony Werner.

Werner’s opening keynote sketched these five 5-year trends: (1) content/device convergence; (2) HD eclipsing of SD (standard definition); (3) time and place shifting; (4) Web and television convergence; and (5) cloud computing.

Werner prefaced his trend-setting remarks with a reference to "Convergence Cubed … a concept that (Comcast Executive Vice President for National Engineering and Technical Operations) John Schanz and I have started discuss." The idea is that once the network has converged, "the next step is content and devices."

The prospect of SD’s eclipsing of HD may have numerous drivers, including one that has more to do with interior decoration and consumer discomfort with the TV set’s traditional form factor than with picture quality or encoding algorithms. "What (consumers) really want is a flat TV that they can hang on the wall," Werner said.

As for time shifting, Werner mentioned Comcast’s recent porting of TiVo software, but emphasized the network (vs. client)-based approach, using the analogy of the "more economical" approach of voice mail to that of a home answering machine. On place shifting, Werner nodded to another consumer electronics innovation, Sling Media‘s Slingbox, but suggested that Comcast would explore content portability via The Fan, its online video site.

The idea of converging Web and TV platforms has been cycled and re-cycled. "More interesting," said Werner, "is what it opens up for long-tail content." As for testing consumer interest in accessing niche content via the Web, Comcast is planning some trials next year.

Driving the "cloud computing" phenomenon are high-speed networks and distributed processing and storage technologies. Online gaming is a possible application for this trend, but others will arise as speeds increase – Werner said that by mid-2008 Comcast would be deploying only DOCSIS 3.0 equipment – and storage becomes ever more dense. Other speakers  Reaction to Werner’s talk included Harmonic President and CEO Patrick Harshman’s nod to the "unexpected success" that traditional programmers were having with online ad sales (see trend No. 4), and a shake of the head on cable’s HD efforts: "A lot of work needs to be done to recapture the initiative."

Bear, Stearns & Co. Senior Managing Director Spencer Wang said navigation remained a weak link. He’s still waiting for guide "robust enough" to handle the existing channel lineup. Werner said OCAP (aka OpenCable) would help overcome the multiple platform challenge and that Brian Roberts would be showcasing a "very cool navigation paradigm" at CES.

Werner was only one of several marquis names at CableNEXT. NCTA Senior Vice President for Law and Regulatory Policy Daniel Brenner offered an a la carte joke at Kevin Martin’s expense and reiterated the industry’s preference for a two-way plug-and-play standard via OpenCable vs. the Consumer Electronics Association‘s more recent DCR+ approach.

Timing is a paramount concern. "If the (digital) transition is your concern, OpenCable is the only approach," he said.

Absent such constraints and given the luxury of a blank slate, Brenner said that a universal multi-channel video programming distributor (MVPD) that worked over cable, satellite and telco platforms would be a preferable solution.

The two other keynoters at CableNEXT, which arguably fills part of the gap in the industry calendar left by the Western Show’s demise in Anaheim four years ago, were Intel General Manager for Consumer Electronics William Leszinske and Managing Director, Merriman Curhan Ford & Co., Tim Savageux.

More than 80 total speakers were slated across the two-and-a-half day event, which included an entirely separate track on OpenCable that leveraged the presence of Silicon Valley developers interested in this once and future interactive platform. CableNEXT drew more than 400 registrants by its start date, said Rob Stuehrk, publisher of ScreenPlays magazine and event organizer.  – Jonathan Tombes

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