BOSTON — To be honest, the annual conference of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association might be the last place you’d expect to find a hackathon. But on Wednesday at the 2012 Cable Show, held this year in Boston, young coders from area colleges hammered out new apps in a matter of hours.
A team from MIT won second place. Its smartphone app makes it easier for friends to share the live events they’re watching on TV. A Stanford team won for their app that lets people prioritize different devices on their home network. And a team from Wellesley College won third for its fitness TV sharing app.
Emily Lin will be a junior at Wellesley this fall. She says at first, her team was overwhelmed by the fancy convention space with slick exhibitions featuring the latest cable shows and the newest home delivery technology.
“This is really intense and it was really inspiring because it encouraged us to really try our best,” Lin said. “Not like we weren’t already, but it was definitely a huge help.”
Lately, the cable industry seems to be taking more of its cues from people like Emily Lin.
“Providing rich experiences on television has been lacking,” said Sree Kotay, a senior executive at Comcast. His title is chief software architect and he says cable companies like his have to make the television screen more like a computer or tablet.
“The television is the largest screen in your house and often the most social screen in your house,” Kotay said. “The idea that it’s just a passive device that doesn’t participate in discovery, communications and all the forms of interaction just seems silly.”
That’s one reason why Comcast unveiled its latest generation cable box this week, branded X1. Kotay demoed how the cable box lets you watch TV but also run Internet apps at the same time.
“There’s a traffic application, there’s a Facebook application, you can listen to all your Pandora music stations on your television,” Kotay said. “And there’s nice little sports application that shows you recent games that have played and also games that are upcoming so you can schedule and watch them.”
Kotay uses a remote to start the sports app. The TV show he was watching continues on the left, but the screen also shows a box score on the right.
“So the Red Sox game is going on right now,” Kotay said. “So it’s the fourth inning, it’s 2-2. So I can be watching something else while I’m keeping up with the sports scores.”
The X1 box will roll out to new Comcast subscribers in Boston next week and existing customers after that. Other cable providers are planning similar products soon. The industry is trying to fight back against competition from Apple TV and Roku. Those Internet-enabled devices have grown popular for streaming TV shows and movies on demand through services such as Hulu and Netflix. But Netflix is one thing Comcast’s new offering will not let you stream directly.
“What we’ve been after is obviously ubiquitous distribution,” said Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos. “Whatever the box is that connects the Internet to the television, we want to be available through that box.”
Some other cable companies at the convention warned against being too controlling. Time Warner Chairman and CEO Jeff Bewkes told a big audience that Silicon Valley and the Internet industry will do a better job coming up with the best ways for people to access the entertainment content cable companies make and deliver.
“We have to, as an industry, let consumers use the interfaces they want. So if they like an Apple interface, a Netflix design, you gotta let them use that,” Bewkes said. “Don’t get hung up on trying to control the interface. You’ll still have the subscriber relationship.”
And cable companies still have the hardwired Internet connections running into people’s homes. That’s the reason why five cable operators, including the top two, Comcast and Time Warner — normally fierce competitors – have joined this week to share in a national Wi-Fi network. The idea is to keep their cable customers from turning to mobile networks like Verizon and AT&T for Internet access — therefore keeping more control over delivery with the cable companies.