Last year, Internet luminary and entrepreneur Marc Andreessen wrote a significant essay in the Wall Street Journal, outlining the many ways in which software has become absolutely vital to our world. Software allows us to extend our reach even further than we did before, automating processes, accelerating the rate of change, and providing the sinews between people and data. It seems only natural then, that software has come to the forefront of business technology.
There few places more interesting to observe this shift to digital than in the tumult and promise of the cable television industry. If software is the new frontier — providing the critical guts and infrastructure, tools and products of the 21st century — then cable television needs to continue digitizing on just about every level. How this happens and how quickly, who dominates the next wave and who gets left behind, are open questions.
At the recent Cable Show in Boston, it was apparent just how intertwined the software and television entertainment industries have become. The theme for the conference, "From cloud to screen and everything in between" aptly demonstrates this new reality. Software and user experience design, in particular are critical to the nascent "Television Anywhere" revolution. On the show floor, this was most evident as cloud television platform companies and custom UX design firms shared space with more traditional players like HBO, AMC, Cisco, and Comcast. And, in the Imagine Park area of the expo, the Cable Show hosted an App Challenge for developers to "take an idea from the drawing board to a functioning, original app that leverages the power of broadband, mobile devices and connected communities" in just 48 hours.
Cable television is desperate not to suffer the same fate as the music industry, caught unawares by the rapid ascent of software technology. But, here too, the entrenched industry giants must find a way to move forward quickly or be rendered obsolete. No company epitomizes this sea change more than Netflix; once an upstart DVD by mail rental company, it is now a leading contender for the streaming video on demand business. The new and old guard mixed together a little uneasily on a conference panel where, Ted Sarandos, Netflix Chief Content Officer joined executives from organizations like Time Warner, News Corp, and Cox Communication. As Piers Morgan interviewed the panelists, it was clear that, while the screen that programming shows up on — from wide screen home theater to tablet — shouldn't matter in theory, in practice, it matters quite a bit. The number of US household without a television set is rising and the ultimate question of "Whose user is it?" is yet to be determined. If the HBO GO and Netflix iPad apps are any indication of where television entertainment is headed, even more splintered audiences are in the offing.
For the cable industry, its future business may very well be defined by the choices it makes regarding software. More so than at any time in the past, software truly is strategic. The new age of software is upon us; as Andreessen puts it, “In short, software is eating the world.”
In a general session one-on-one, Piers Morgan interviewed comedian and new media darling Conan O'Brien about how software applications and content intersect. Conan has used Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, to build up strong relationships with the grassroots fans of his TBS late night show. "My attitude over the past two years was 'adapt or die'," said O'Brien. "People are viewing television in a vastly different way. The technology is going to change. You need to embrace it." As in so many sectors, leveraging great software is not only becoming necessary to compete, but may be needed to even survive.