Those who know me understand my iPhone obsession. Or at least tolerate it. So I felt compelled to download the new Comcast iPhone application almost as soon as it came out on July 14. I’ve been tinkering with it ever since. And to my surprise, it’s actually pretty good and, in my opinion, exceeds its current 3-out-of-5 star rating on iTunes (based on nearly 3000 votes). Now don’t get me wrong: The app lacks plenty of features that hopefully will appear in future versions—no doubt a factor in holding it below 4 stars. But remember this is version 1.0. In truth, this app is a nice start and perhaps a model for other operators to study as they plan similar sojourns into the increasingly popular iTunes App Store.
Here’s a rundown:
The Basics – The application incorporates elements of Comcast’s Web portal with an onscreen guide and other features. It includes email functionality and online voice mail migration, as well as an up-to-the-minute channel guide and On Demand section that includes video from various VOD selections. In addition, the app can integrate the iPhone’s address book.
Look/Feel – In a word: Smooth. The application works extremely well. No gurgles, hiccups or crashes. The email client is easy to use, and it integrates well with the app’s address book. In fact, the email-address book interplay within the app rivals the iPhone’s native email and address book functions. In addition, the list of emails can either integrate with voice mail messages or fall under separate tabs. And like the iPhone’s native email client within its 3.0 operating system, there’s a search tab to find emails by keyword. Nice.
The Guide – As one might expect, the app includes a cable program guide customized to each user’s Comcast location. Hit the “The Guide” tab, and the app automatically loads all the shows coming up next on your Comcast system (i.e., if it’s 9:17 pm, it will start off listing 9pm shows). A flick of the finger scrolls the guide either vertically through various channels or horizontally to advance through later time slots. Data takes a while to load, but that’s probably more AT&T’s fault than Comcast’s (ironic, eh?).
On Demand – Another nice feature: Users can hit the “On Demand” button to drill down into this month’s latest VOD features. It’s actually a quick way to see some of what’s available, and even watch trailers and other extras related to top VOD movies in Comcast’s current lineup. And you can watch full-length movies and series, right? Uh, no. One quibble: It would be nice to also get access to a simple, up-to-date list of all the VOD movies/series available on a particular system rather than just highlighted selections and trailers. Hopefully, this capability will be added in future versions.
What Else is Missing? – First of all, the most obvious feature that should be here is remote DVR control, which Comcast probably will add it the minute it’s able to ensure a good user experience. And yes, it would be nice to watch VOD movies right on the iPhone (either streamed or downloaded). But that’s why Comcast and other MSOs are working so hard on “TV Everywhere,” which will hopefully iron out the legal and business issues surrounding potential authentication schemes. Once operators and programmers work that out, it seems obvious that the Comcast app will include at least some ability to watch full-length VOD fare on the iPhone (It could even be a profit center as people pay to watch movies on the go). And perhaps someday—even a Slingbox-like experience in which users can watch live TV on their iPhones while about town or even while traveling.
The bottom line: Comcast’s first foray into the world of iPhone apps is a respectable one. There’s demand for this stuff. And it’s smart for the MSO to jump in now despite any criticism over “missing” features—because the company will have a nice base of users when it activates those features in future versions. Some 100K people downloaded the app in its first week alone. Right now, Comcast is seeding the market and thinking ahead. Other operators should consider doing the same.
(Michael Grebb is executive editor of CableFAX Daily).