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Same Man, Different Company

2/03/2014 12:00 AM Eastern

When Brian Roberts casually walked into the Acme Oyster House in New Orleans during the 1997 NCTA show, we shared a beer and bivalves. The president of the one of the largest cable operators at the time, he was genuinely enthusiastic for cable’s growth prospects.

Today, Brian is much the same — animated when talking cable technology, fiercely proud of the company his father founded and zero ego (though at shows now he is instantly mobbed by investors, reporters and acolytes).

But as our coverage this week reflects, Comcast, now the nation’s largest operator, is not the same company. Far from it. It’s rare to witness a metamorphosis in an American company as thorough as the one at Comcast, and amazing to watch.

Before, Comcast, like much of the industry, was in the construction business, wiring America. Now the industry is squarely in the software business, with Comcast taking the lead, hiring more than 1,000 software engineers and designing the most sophisticated TV-search interface that exists among distributors, the X2. Comcast is so far ahead of the pack, few other operators seem able to catch up.

After a demonstration of X2 last week in Philadelphia by CTO Tony Werner, I sat in the tiny theater nearly drooling as he effortlessly switched channels, genres and recording times with easy, intuitive buttons. It was a thing of beauty.

Even before the merger with NBCUniversal, Comcast invested in making its network superior. After cable unit CEO Neil Smit was placed at the helm, he began pushing a mission of innovation at a pace never seen before in the old cable industry. With an army of engineers and marketers behind him, he has completely transformed the people and the business into a diff erent kind of company.

The real unsung hero, as our story on page 2 points out, is Comcast’s cloud, a point not lost on Roberts, now CEO. “Tony Werner and [Comcast Cable chief network officer] John Schanz have put us in a great technology place,” Roberts told me last Friday (Jan. 31). “We’re soon going to take the same energy that we have behind new products and put it into customer service. The whole organization is lined up to do great things.”

To get here, Comcast had to do “more than just pivot, it had to become an IP company — that was not its forte,” technology editor Jeff Baumgartner said, “It is starting to see the fruits of that.” Last week, ending a 26-quarter subscriber-losing streak, Comcast increased video subs by 43,000 to 21.7 million, “trimmed truck rolls by 3.5 million as more than a third of its customers managed their accounts online.”

With the IP-capable X1 video platform now deployed, and X2 on the way, the OTT threats from Apple, Amazon, Vudu and others seems misplaced.

Comcast is no longer just a cable-TV company.

September