It's time for cable to move beyond the UI

Mike Dano CHICAGO--Here at the INTX trade show, there is a lot of noise about the "user experience."

Cable operators, technology vendors and others are desperate to make it easier for users to find and watch content. The idea is that a slick, easy-to-use interface will make customers happier, and possibly prevent them from cutting the cord and moving to other video services.

Examples of this intense focus on the cable UI include the new G4 STB Client from Espial, which can combine linear and on-demand content, alongside Internet apps and Internet-based video, into one "compelling" user interface. Along these same lines, Comcast announced the availability of its Xfinity voice remote; the device allows users to search tens of thousands of shows and movies on the X1 platform with their voice.

But perhaps the most notable action in this arena came from Charter Communications (NASDAQ: CHTR), which just a few weeks ago purchased cloud TV interface company ActiveVideo with partner Arris for around $135 million. Charter uses ActiveVideo's CloudTV in its Spectrum Guide, and owning the company gives Charter firmer control over the development of its set-top box user interface.

Of course, there's a strong argument to be made for putting so much time and energy into creating a pleasant and smooth user interface. After all, it's the main window between customers and the services from their cable provider.

But the continued push for a better, faster UI seems misplaced at a time when YouTube is now the most watched television "channel" among 15- to 24-year-olds in Sweden and Netflix is showing the best superhero TV show I've ever seen (Daredevil).

Specifically, the cable industry should stop worrying about user profiles, recommendation services, voice-activated channel surfing and other UI perks, and it should start worrying about the content it is preventing its users from seeing. After all, what good is a more precise recommendation engine when it is only able to recommend content from a cable operator's relatively narrow channel portfolio?

To be clear, some cable operators are already moving in this direction. There continues to be movement in the TV Everywhere space, albeit jerky and sluggish. Further, Armstrong, Atlantic Broadband, Mediacom Communications, Midcontinent Communications and WideOpenWest (WOW!) recently joined Cablevision (NYSE: CVC) in offering Hulu to their respective subscribers. And of course Dish Network offers services like Netflix and Vevo through its systems.

But deals like this are surprisingly few and far between at a time when Apple counts around half a million apps for its iPad.

Indeed, Apple's iPad and iPhone strategy stands as a telling parable for the cable industry. Before the iPhone, wireless carriers maintained relatively stiff control over the user interface on their phones--using that interface to sell their own products and services. For example, AT&T's mMode service ran on top most of the carrier's flip phones, and AT&T controlled the look, feel and content available through mMode.

It's no secret that Apple's iPhone quickly cut down the "walled gardens" like mMode that were offered by the wireless carriers. It did so partly through a slick user interface, yes, but mainly because it offered users access to applications and services they didn't have and couldn't get anywhere else. Today, the iPhone remains a draw not because it offers a slick user interface--most modern Android and Windows smartphones offer that--but because it provides access to a slew of curated Internet apps and services, from Twitter to Netflix to Hulu.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that cable operators ignore the importance of the user interface they offer to subscribers. Getting customers to their desired content quickly and easily is obviously of value--after all, new data from Cox Communications shows that an agreeable UI can lead to increases in TV viewership. But that shouldn't be cable's endgame.

An easy-to-use UI is table-stakes in an industry under fire from the likes of Netflix, HBO and potentially Apple itself, if the iPhone vendor does indeed release a TV product. What other services can cable operators provide that will surprise and delight users? I think there are lots of services that would be great to access from a TV screen--weather info, Vine videos, Facebook, family pictures and home automation services, to name a few--if only that set-top box could display it.

If cable operators are forcing customers to turn to Roku or another such service in order to watch Netflix's Daredevil show on a TV, they're clearly not putting much thought into a user's actual experience. --Mike |@mikeddano