Just got off the phone from a tandem interview with Plaxo CEO Ben Golub and Comcast Interactive Media's Sam Schwartz. They weren't willing to talk money but answered just about everything else and talked at length about the vision of marrying set-tops and social software. Comcast (NSDQ: CMCSA) plans to integrate Plaxo's technology across its platformsincluding, eventually, to WiMax. In the short-term, Schwartz says, it's about "taking the existing network and making it more powerful. There aren't too many other social networks that cross over to the TV set, certainly at that scale."
Why now?: The two companies have already been working together for a year, with Plaxo powering the address books used for Comcast's 14 million high-speed data subscribers. Schwartz, president, Comcast Interactive Capital and EVP, CIM: "As we continued to look at making that partnership even deeper, we've been thinking about the things we could do to supercharge each other's product and really believe there's a unique opportunity in a marriage." He puts the opportunities in two categories: the technology Plaxo has been building for seven years as it morphed from address book to sharing online activities through its social Pulse product and Comcast's activities with interactive set-top boxes, building Comcast.net, expanding with the launch of Fancast.com, the acquisition of Fandango and more. "All those things when you tie them together, both sides can really provide a lot more endpoints for making that a valuable social service. Every social network does better the more endpoints it has and the information it has flowing through it."
As an example, he offers the web-based way people share photos through Plaxo now and a vision for the future. "We're going to enable photos to be viewed on your TV set, for example, through your set-top box. We have 25 million homes that get Comcast video. That means if your grandmother would prefer to see her family photoson the TV set you can pop up a note that says, 'You have new photos from your son Ben.' ... We can use this as a social media backbone for all of Comcast's endpoints. We announced some things recently in the wireless area. This will apply to that." When I asked if he was referring to the Sprint-Clearwire (NSDQ: CLWR) WiMax JV (Comcast is an investor), Schwartz said, "That's a longer-term vision. The nearer-term stuff is what we can do with the set-top and what we can do with our other internet properties.... taking the existing network and making it more powerful. There aren't too many other social networks that cross over to the TV set, certainly at that scale."
Why do you have to own it to do this?: Schwartz: "That's a good question. We're a company that operates on a very large scale. We want to make this partnership even tighter. Plaxo has 50 employees and a lot of expertise about what's happening on the social web. We think we can leverage their expertise to really help us plan those products as Comcast employees and we're looking forward to having their technology be our own." The other thing, he added, is the way Plaxo fits into to the idea of Comcast Interactive Media, "which is chartered with building internet web sites and amassing a large portfolio of unique visitors across those web sites. Plaxo ... has success outside of Comcasts traditional footprint as well as internationally. The combination continues to grow CIM's footprint on the internet outside of traditional cable."
When do you expect people to see a difference? To see a set-top intertwined?: Schwartz: "I think there will be obvious signs of the result of this combination by the end of this in terms of Comcast products. When we'll do that on specific platforms, we don't know yet. I think one of the biggest things to look forward to is not just things Plaxo has already built, but really bringing the social web to the notion of navigating, of making decisions about what you want to watch. ... Our plan is to really weave the social fabric into all those platforms so that when you go to your TV set or you go to Fancast.com, you're watching what your friends have recommended." He suggests a time when you get an email that says, 'Seven of your friends are taping the football game on Saturday, do you want to tape it too?" Or you send your mom a note to watch something with a button to click if she wants us to record it." Golub: "Not only that, people you went to the same college with, this will let you know when the big game is on and hopefully, in the near future, you can comment and text to each other while you're watching the game."
Why Comcast?: Golub: "As we looked to try and grow our vision of having Pulse be the way you connect to the people that you care about, we knew we needed to reach a lot more people in a lot more place and to reach them with a lot better content. Being with Comcast lets us do that and accelerate our vision."
By Staci D. Kramer