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Time Warner Cable, Roku App Falls Short of Expectations

The Consumer Electronics Show was chock-full of notices desperate to convey a sense that the future has arrived. But when Time Warner Cable and Roku made a joint announcement at this time last year about its TWC TV app, it seemed a rare example of an innovation worthy of its own hype.

TWC TV frees a TW Cable subscriber of the need for a second cable set-top box on an additional TV. Instead, the entire linear channel lineup and a full suite of VOD content can be accessed via an app that wirelessly streams through a $98 Roku 3 device.

But one year after its introduction, a trial run with TWC TV left me feeling this was less an example of the future come early than an exercise in unfulfilled potential.

It does make for a heady moment when you can literally sweep away the cobwebs that have gathered on your bedroom TV’s cable box and replace it with a dainty little purple pillbox-sized device. The sense of liberation that comes from disconnecting the white umbilical cord coming out of the wall brought to mind the moment in “The Matrix” when Keanu Reeves yanks the plug out of the back of his head.

To see the TV package as we’ve all come to know it be replicated with impressive technical aplomb by Roku is to question TW Cable’s sanity: Why is the company essentially disrupting itself? But the economics of losing an $11 monthly rental fee for a secondary cable box is more than made up for by avoiding the cost associated with maintaining those cobweb-collectors in the first place.

Spend some time actually using TWC TV, however, and you come to find that what looks like self-disruption really is nothing of the sort. What TW Cable is really doing at this juncture is allowing Roku owners to have an inferior viewing experience by letting go of some of the essential trappings of the traditional subscription that you don’t miss until they’re gone.

Take for example the fact that the Roku remote control, which to its credit has blessedly few buttons, doesn’t allow for selecting a specific channel. No choice can be made without scrolling through a channel guide; pity the viewer who wants to make their way from ABC Family to VH1. The scroll moves pretty fast, but when there are hundreds of channels to get through, the simple input of a number is instantly appreciated.

If only that were all that was missing. DVR access isn’t yet available. There’s also no channel grid in the Roku experience, which prevents viewers from finding out what’s on later. An even older relic of the TV of yore, closed captioning — which no person who has to watch a channel on mute next to a sleeping significant other should be without — hasn’t made it to Roku.

Were it any one of these faults by itself, TWC TV would likely still be hooked up in my bedroom. But taken all together, it was enough to have me reconnecting the cable box in a matter of weeks.

Dismiss all this as nitpicking a missing set of features that may well be added to TWC in the coming months, though it is worth noting that the app hasn’t changed much over its first year in action. And while there’s been plenty of speculation as to what other set-top replacements would be next to provide a similar product, no pay TV service or hardware provider came to market in 2013 with anything similar.

Nevertheless, there’s no mistaking that this is where pay TV is going: ceding the role of hardware provider to device manufacturers better suited to improve upon a user interface that’s been lackluster for decades. That’s fine, but if another disrupter like Apple TV or Xbox One thinks that coming to market with an ersatz version of what older technology delivers is going to suffice, they’re sorely mistaken.

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