Comcast: How AI, machine learning, DevOps, and a bit of hardware may make it a smart home platform

Comcast may emerge as a key smart home platform player. Here's a look at Comcast's digital transformation playbook, which includes DevOps, AI, and machine learning, voice and user interface, and even hardware design.

Comcast: Can it be the smart home platform?

Comcast used to know its customers largely as addresses, not people.

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But Sridhar Solur, senior vice president of Xfinity Home and IoT Products, is changing that reality by integrating software development, hardware, artificial intelligence, and machine learning.

If successful, Comcast stands as good a chance as any company to become a leading -- if not dominant -- platform to integrate smart home technologies and manage your home. While Amazon's Alexa, Google, and Apple take a device-centric approach to the smart home and emphasize their own ecosystems, Comcast is addressing the problem from the networking core out. What's similar is that all of these smart home platform combatants are betting that artificial intelligence, machine learning, and voice recognition can get them where they want to go. In the future, the end goal is to have a platform that can anticipate your needs.

In the race to deliver a smart home operating system -- or middleware -- the question few are asking is: What about Comcast?

"We're going from knowing our customers as addresses to understanding them as people through personalization and contextualization. We're going to evolve to a service that does things for you," explained Solur, who joined Comcast in March 2016 after leading Hewlett Packard Enterprise's IoT business.

ZDNet interviewed the executives behind Comcast's digital transformation, AI, and machine learning efforts. What we found is a massive company moving quickly to roll out software updates at least every two weeks, monitoring call center requests to inform services tweaks and interface changes, and a hardware strategy that dovetails with its AI efforts.

To say the stakes are high would be an understatement. Here's the familiar storyline for media, cable, and telecom companies: Cord cutting is upending the economics of the industry and players like Comcast will be relegated to dumb pipe status and ultimately lose customers.

Shares of cable companies as well as broadcasters have been under pressure leading up to third quarter earnings. Netflix's strong third quarter only magnified those concerns. Jefferies analyst Mike McCormack estimates that Comcast will lose 165,000 video subscribers in the third quarter with challenges ahead for the fourth quarter due to hurricane outages and repairs.

The other concern for Comcast is that over-the-top services such as Hulu and Netflix will spur more customers to ditch their cable bundles. In addition, 5G services from wireless rivals may even ultimately poach Comcast's broadband customers. As of June 30, Comcast had 28.99 million customers up from 28.1 million the same period a year ago. The average monthly revenue per customer was $151.19, up from $147.9 a year ago.

Can Comcast offer services that keep customers? Perhaps. Comcast is already changing the mix of its customer base. For instance, security and automation customers topped one million as of June 30, up from 737,000 a year ago. Video subscribers have stayed flat or delivered modest growth with high-speed Internet customers continuing to grow. Net customer growth has been lumpy in recent quarters.

It's easy -- almost too easy -- to portray Comcast as the dinosaur just waiting to be disrupted. But when it comes to being the linchpin of your digital home, Comcast has some inherent advantages:

  • It's already in your home.
  • It has a network that provides connectivity to smart devices.
  • It has used DevOps and agile techniques to revamp its approach to software and infuse machine learning and artificial intelligence through its portfolio.

"Our strategy is to be at the nexus of three technologies: Interconnected devices, machine learning and ambient voice," said Solur.

In addition to Solur, Comcast hired Fraser Stirling as its senior vice president of devices and AI systems. Before joining Comcast in April 2014, Stirling had stints at Intel as director of hardware engineering for Intel Media. Stirling oversees Comcast's hardware strategy as well as AI teams.

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xFi technology. Credit: Comcast

"People love things that they can pick up. We started from scratch with our development of hardware and industrial design," said Stirling, who explained that hardware brings desire to a product and software keeps you coming back.

Comcast's product portfolio is getting smarter with the May launch of xFi platform, which features family-friendly tools to manage networks and AI that will eventually adapt to your daily routine. Home security and automation services are also growing. Technically, Xfinity xFi is a Wi-Fi router, but software is the linchpin to usage and the anchor for home security and automation growth. xFi, which reached more than 10 million homes at launch, also builds on the success of Comcast's X1 platform, which landed in 2012.

The Xfinity xFi launch served as a coming out party for the digital transformation effort brewing in recent years at Comcast. Here's a look at the moving parts and lessons learned from that effort.

Agile to DevOps to what's next

Stirling cringes when asked about agile software development. "Agile is awesome, but it's an old term we never talk about," said Stirling. "What makes everything work is DevOps. You need development and operations together. So there's the same person doing code and not the two week sprint and then a hand off."

And to make DevOps work, there has to be accountability for the developer, explained Stirling. Comcast developers are expected to know call-in rates as well as the machine metrics that highlight issues. For example, if a feature is pushed out to 7 percent of the customer base the developer needs to know how the product is performing in respect to memory leaks to Wi-Fi issues to connections to Zigbee, a connected home standard.

"Everything we do is about data and we have a dashboard for everything," said Stirling.

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When it comes to software development, one of Comcast's biggest assets may be its call center. "On a weekly basis we have an understanding of how the work we've done has affected business metrics," said Solur. "If something has driven call volumes we know exactly what it is, whether it's feature changes or changes to UI. You have to have that diligence."

Solur's projects are measured in opportunities, investments and returns. Less churn and customer satisfaction as measured through the Net Promoter Score (NPS) is closely watched. New services like home security and automation are also enabled via Comcast's new platforms and can grow the revenue pie.

"Innovation at scale" is the approach Solur is after with software and product development. The ideas have to come from the bottom up and involve business and technology executives, explained Solur. On the product and platform fronts, Comcast is looking to break its efforts into micro services that are easy to roll out.

When speaking about DevOps, Solur thinks in terms of a continuum. Comcast has evolved from a systems administration culture to one focused on continuous delivery. The evolution beyond that point revolves around infrastructure as code and Solur's Holy Grail is the ability to use machine learning to A/B test product and create a self-healing platform. Comcast has internal examples of each stage, said Solur.

In addition, Comcast is focused on delivering a platform and ecosystem that can integrate various partners. By focusing on the platform, Comcast can extend its reach via application programming interfaces and partner with everyone from Netflix to smart home device makers. "We want everything you put into your home to work well together," said Solur.

"What we have now is a workbook for innovation at scale," said Solur.

Also: What is DevOps? An executive guide to agile development and IT operations

How work gets done

Innovation at scale sounds good, but there are a lot of day-to-day moving parts and nothing works unless every part of a product becomes a micro-service.

Comcast's approach to software development received a boost in 2014 when the cable giant bought PowerCloud Systems, which made a Wi-Fi router called Skydog to manage IoT devices in the home. That purchase brought engineering talent to Comcast and gave it momentum to expand.

The company has centers in Silicon Valley, Austin, and Philadelphia as well as a UX team in New York. These teams, which are focused on products like xFi and Xfinity Home, collaborate with each other.

"Comcast has to go where the talent is and bring it together," said Jeff Barberio, product lead for xFi. "We focus on enabling integration for our customers."

In addition, "squads" are formed to bring products to life. These squads incorporate multiple roles and teams to move quickly and fail fast, said Solur. Product leaders and engineers come together in scrum meetings.

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These scrum meetings also have a heavy dose of analytics, according to Jessica Sant, engineering lead for xFi, Web, mobile, and X1. "One of the critical things we did with xFi is building instrumentation and analytics into everything we do," she said. "We won't launch a feature without analytics behind it to tell us how we are doing. Call volume is one way, but we don't solely rely on that. How customers are using xFi also shows us patterns."

Specifically, front-end analytics are crucial to gauging success, said Sant. Things like usage and exits by the customer, error messages and alerts are all useful on the software side.

TechRepublic: How project teams can improve QA testing | Scrum agile project management: The smart person's guide

Yet no matter who you talk to at Comcast, call volume is usually a front-and-center metric. Barberio added that the top thing he wants to understand is what drives a customer to make a call.

Sant said call volume data led Comcast's xFi team to invest a lot of time perfecting the installation process via an app. The company has been tweaking processes and workflows every other week since xFi launched in May, she said.

Why is activation and installation so important? Sant said that the initial activation experience is what has the most impact on NPS scores. For a cable company, installation and activation is your first impression.

"We are pushing code every two weeks whether it's bug fixes, UI or new features," said Barberio.

Sant added that Web teams release weekly with the mobile app team launching monthly. Some teams will launch code daily.

Hardware is the vessel for AI, voice

With the launch of X1 and xFi, Comcast has upped its focus on hardware design. Comcast recognized that it needed to improve design of hardware and launch its own devices. Before 2012, Comcast's approach was to simply order a cable box or hardware from a vendor like Arris and rebrand it.

"We're taking a lot of pride in how a device feels look and the functionality inside," said Stirling, who noted that when the X1 platform first launched it didn't initially have the hardware design to backup the experience.

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Comcast doesn't have a huge lineup of hardware products, but the xFi gateway, door window sensors, cameras, and devices that are the front end of core cable service or Xfinity Home have a design language, said Stirling. Comcast works closely on the hardware side with four or five partners and gets specifications to them.

In other words, the media and technology company doesn't have to carpet bomb the market with devices, but have a curated lineup of strong ones. "We want to create five or six things that work well for 80 percent of the people," said Stirling.

Stirling squirms when a term like design language is used because companies adhere to it too much. But generally speaking, Comcast tries to put movement to things that are stationary, shares fonts and visual cues on both hardware and software, and deploys what Stirling calls "honesty in materials." "If a device looks like it's metal and it's really plastic that's a bad experience," said Stirling.

"There is a different level of expectations for hardware in the market today. Being design first is a good thing," explained Stirling, who noted that even startup products on Kickstarter all look good.

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Home security cameras from Comcast.

Comcast's design language is to have angles that make it appear as though the device is in motion. Devices like motion detectors are made to fit in well with a home's decor and carry a shade of white that has just enough blue in it to blend in with nearly anything.

The hardware approach deployed by Comcast is also meant to bring its voice platform to life. For instance, the decision to have a push-to-talk button on a remote control to use voice recognition was made because it doesn't' require training, said Stirling. "A voice remote that's push to talk is easy to understand and serves as a wake up word," said Stirling.

Comcast has a set of natural language processing engines focused on sports, TV, home commands, general knowledge and customer experience, explained Stirling. In addition, there's no wakeup word required due to the hardware approach. "Alexa is cool, but a slightly different use case," he said.

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For Comcast, integrating voice, design, software and hardware isn't about wowing you with one moment of innovation. Stirling said the approach is more about "doing a smaller amount of things really well."

"Technology may be more about several small moments of truth instead of magic bullets. Voice is one of those technologies that provide small moments of truth often," he said.

What's next?

Solur has a progression outlining where Comcast's integrated platform will go. For now, xFi provides a venue to learn more about customers and what they want. For instance, it's clear that xFi's big value proposition is enabling families to control their network around dinner, homework and human face time (not to be confused with Apple's FaceTime).

In other words, xFi's ability to control devices, access and security is key. And as customers personalize xFi more, Solur gets more insights to develop more services. "As people personalize in bits and pieces our machine learning gets better," said Solur. "We need customers to embrace personalization to be more than speeds and feeds."

The data on how customers are using xFi in bulk is anonymized, but does offer the potential to establish routines at certain times a day. For instance, Comcast's digital home effort will ultimately have the ability to recognize when a customer turns on the radio, raises the window shades, and starts brewing coffee. The platform will ask if a customer wants to do that routine daily.

Another obvious goal for Comcast would be to learn enough from usage to troubleshoot and fix issues proactively. "This intelligent infrastructure is a path to a self-healing network," said Solur. "We want to train the system to solve problems."

Solur's other ambition is to detect security anomalies on the xFi and digital home platforms and beef up security. One of Solur's working theories is that physical and digital security will merge. After all, you want to know where your kids are physically and digitally.

In other words, there's also a continuum for product development. Comcast is moving toward personalizing products for customers and adding context to deliver experiences. For Solur the customer-facing Holy Grail revolves around cognition where Comcast's platform will anticipate your needs.

"We started with addresses, moved to personalization and are adding context and cognition," said Solur. "We have different aspects of each of these now, but over the next 10 years we will move up the continuum."

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