Comcast Testing ‘Xcalibur’ Web Connected Cable Boxes

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Comcast has apparently started testing its own web-connected cable boxes in an Augusta, Georgia pilot program, according to the Wall Street Journal. The project is referred to as “Xcalibur” internally, though participating customers reportedly know of it as “Spectrum.”

This project is not new. Job postings for it sprung up over a year ago, but this appears to be the first time the connected cable boxes have found their way into consumers’ hands. And while some tech publications are likening Xcalibur to a Google TV killer, it’s really only similar to Google TV as far as certain basic features are concerned.

Xcalibur boxes don’t have full web access—just “a smattering” of online videos are available, according to the Journal. But users can apparently tap into certain social networks and there’s a universal search feature that finds shows whether they’re available in real time, on demand, or as recordings.

This project sounds more like where Comcast cable boxes, in general, should have been already. Even though Comcast touts the largest subscriber base in the country, its cable boxes still lack several features found elsewhere.

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Most notably, Comcast boxes don’t even feature basic network connections. While not being able to get full internet access through a Comcast box isn’t a huge surprise, you can’t even connect two boxes in your house together in order to share shows across your home network.

Assuming these Xcalibur boxes support basic networking features (start watching a recorded show in one room and finish it in another room, for instance) it’ll be interesting to see if Comcast has built support in for third-party services such as Netflix.

That doesn’t seem too likely given that Comcast wants people to buy movies and TV shows from its own On Demand service, but the company might be thinking that it’s better to get people to subscribe to cable in order to get the Xcalibur box than for people to just buy a box that handles Netflix and skip cable altogether. Make the Xcalibur box so awesome that people subscribe to cable in order to get it, in other words. That’s probably wishful thinking.

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There’s also the question of Comcast’s recent NBC acquisition. Now that Comcast is entering the connected set-top box arena with the likes of Google TV, Apple TV, Roku, Boxee and TiVo, expect watchdog groups to keep a keen eye on whether or not NBC content gets favored on Comcast boxes or worse, pared down or blocked from competing boxes altogether.

That’s a worst case scenario, though. In a perfect world, the Xcalibur box would offer enough of the services found in competing boxes to make purchasing those boxes unnecessary. The price of the Xcalibur box would be subsidized by its monthly cable and internet subscriptions, too.

The one glaring omission we do know about now is that there’s no full internet access—no web browser. While watered-down access to the internet through your TV may make for a simplified user experience, it perpetuates the whole “walled garden” approach by limiting consumer choice.

Still, a connected box from Comcast is a step in the right direction given that all the company’s boxes are currently years behind those from competitors such as DirecTV, AT&T’s U-verse service, and Verizon’s FiOS service. And given that Comcast already has decent relationships with content providers, it’s almost assured that the company wouldn’t run into the same trouble that Google TV’s been having trying to convince the studios not to block their content from being played inside the full web browser that Google TV uses.

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