Thursday, May 17, 2007

Searching for Entertainment

I enjoyed reading Lou Paglia's account of FAST’s Future of Media meeting in New York City yesterday. His report focused on a panel discussion; and I was most interested in the fact that one of the panelists was "Benjamin Rudolph who manages search for Comcast." I have to admit that the most interesting thing was the revelation that Comcast has someone who "manages search." If Jakob Nielsen is upset by the "glossy but useless" Web sites coming out of Web 2.0, I suspect that just about any set-top box would drive him apoplectic! I have now tried to "search" with my own Comcast box and with a friend's TiVo/DirecTV hookup. On the scale of my life experiences, this one ranked far below debugging assembly code on a PDP-8! My guess is that most Comcast customers do not even know that search is an option. (I do not think my friend knew she had it with her TiVo/DirecTV.)

Nevertheless, Rudolph had some very useful (if not always original) things to say about the value of context; and this was the focus of Paglia's post. There is no doubt that it is an important topic and will probably be the biggest challenge for the future of the living room, so to speak. Several years ago I was told that Amazon's biggest search problem was in their Music "store," because too many search requests would yield either way too much (mostly of the wrong thing) or nothing at all. Rudolph pointed out that a search for "24" has this sort of context problem. In the Amazon DVD "store," the searcher is probably looking for boxed sets of entire seasons. (These are actually the first "hits" you get if you just search on "24" without specifying any category.) The world of Comcast is more ambiguous, though: You may want to know when the next episode is on (and which channel is broadcasting it). You may want to know which episodes (if any) are available through On Demand. You may even have heard that Kiefer Sutherland had been a guest on The Tonight Show, and you wanted to know if you could see that portion of the show through the On Demand service. (Note, also, that none of these examples have anything to do with your use of the DVR that is now included in some of the Comcast boxes.) So, if there are problems searching for "24," those problems get blown up to an even larger scale when searching for music products on Amazon!

While Rudolph's remarks were useful, however, they also neglected at least one critical aspect of context, which is that it is as much social as it is "semantic." Graham Button has lectured and published long and hard about the problems of introducing a new technology in a workplace; and the problem that most concerns him is that any work setting has its own "immutable work practices" (his words) before the new technology is introduced. If the learning curve for the new technology does not take those immutable practices into account, the new technology many lower productivity rather than raise it.

So it is with home entertainment. However poorly it may have been designed, the Comcast box has now been around so long that a whole barrage of immutable practices have formed around it. Those practices would drive Nielsen (and probably most of the readers of this blog) crazy; but, like it or not, they are now part of the context of the consumer market. The path to the "Future of Media" will have to take them into account, which means that it will probably have any number of twists and turns that those of us with "technological common sense" cannot possibly anticipate!


Lou Paglia said...

Rudolph is the manager for search on so that was where most of his focused was aimed. However, he did discuss to some degree the challenges Comcast faces on the set top box and how UI interactivity is a challenge without a keyboard. Has anyone ever tried to navigate to an On Demand show on a certain channel? I have, it is pretty painful. Perhaps there should be a whole business of building remotes with Qwerty keywords like on phones. I would buy one if it solved the problem in the short term. Qwerty remotes...I am filing the patent right now.

Stephen Smoliar said...

Yes, the On Demand interface is pretty ghastly; but do not try to talk to anyone at Comcast about it. Apparently that whole side of their offering has been outsourced (and they are withholding the names to protect the guilty)! The good news is that, quite by accident, I discovered that there is a
Web site
for all of the On Demand content! The bad news is that it is divided into separate pages for the different letters of the alphabet; and, as anyone who has tried to browse On Demand knows, they are not consistent in whether leading words like "A" and "The" determine alphabetic position. This Web site also has a Search window. I have not tested it very much; but it least it gave me the same results for "Tudors" and "Tudor." Now if it would only occur to them to hyperlink the title to the summary description you see when browsing with the set-top box!

By the way, Lou, before you file your patent, the WebTV wireless keyboard would probably count as prior art for a Qwerty remote! I remember trying it, though; and it was pretty bad. Of course it wasn't as bad as picking characters with the cursor from a "soft" keyboard!

Lou Paglia said...

Oh, that's too bad. Well, at least I still have a shot at filing my one-click patent for e-commerce sites. That should be popular as well. :)