The transition away from traditional cable television—cutting the cord—continues in fits and starts, and as readers of this blog are aware, I’ve been following and commenting on this trend for some time (see here, here, and here).
But I’m well aware that the cable industry is fighting this transition tooth and nail. After all, their business model—perhaps their very survival—depends on the outcome.
To that end, I’m sure it’s no coincidence that an email appeared in my inbox this week, one that piqued my curiosity.
The email was from my cable provider, Charter Communications, and was titled “The Charter app goes local.” The company was promoting its redesigned mobile app for smartphones and tablets, and I thought what the heck, let’s give it a look.
Charter promotes the mobile app as a free download for iPhone, iPad, and Android devices. In my case, the app was available from Apple’s App Store, and I installed it on my iPad Air in about a minute.
When I launched the app, my initial impression was favorable. The home screen is nicely laid out for the iPad screen, attractively color coordinated, familiar and intuitive. I knew instinctively that I could scroll across through thumbnails of program selections, and downward to display additional options.
Scrolling downward, program selections are categorized as Most Popular On Demand, Recommendations, Live, and My Favorites. In each category, scrolling to the right reveals more selections (except for My Favorites, which is initially empty).
Along the top of the app are three icons offering, from left to right, Menu, Help, and Search.
So far, so good.
The Search function enables you to search the app’s program database by actor, title, or keyword. I searched for “comedy,” and it delivered the 25 most relevant items pertaining to the entry in a new page. Each item is, itself, a link, and you can click through to see more information on the movie or TV show. It’s a well-designed interface.
The Help option is actually laughably sparse, and pretty useless, displaying a few little help bubbles directly on the page.
As someone who writes user documentation for a living, it never ceases to amaze me when a company treats documentation and help as an afterthought. I guess the rationale is that, hey, it’s free, what do you expect.
In fairness, though, you probably don’t need much documentation with an app like this. It is fairly self-explanatory, and, as you’ll see later, still very much a work in progress.
The Menu option slides a panel outward from the left of the screen, listing Home, Guide, Live TV, On Demand, Watch List, Sports Zone, Kids Zone, and Settings. There is also a location status indicator at the bottom of the panel that says In Home: Full Access. More on that later.
The Guide is a programming schedule that is nearly identical to the one my cable box provides. You can traverse the guide across by time, and downward by channel.
Live TV shows me thumbnails of all the shows currently playing on Charter programming, and there are hundreds to browse through. When I select one, the show in progress plays on the iPad in real time. This feature is fast and responsive.
The On Demand feature is not quite fully hooked up. A dialog box tells me I can browse all available OD programming and send a program I order to my TV, but only that streaming on the iPad is “coming soon.”
As with apps such as HBO GO, the Charter app lets me add On Demand shows to a watch list. The Watchlist feature lets me start watching anything I’ve added by sending it to my cable box. Since I can’t watch the program on my iPad, at least not yet, it’s not very useful.
Sports Zone and Kids Zone show you scheduled targeted programming and let you view on demand programming options, as well. But, as mentioned, none of the OD programming can be streamed to your tablet as yet.
What’s the use, really?
Earlier, I referred to a status panel that said At Home: Full Access. What this phrase means is that this app is really only of any use when I’m at home. While I can certainly take my iPad on the road, I can’t take my Charter subscription with me. And that’s a shame.
Even at home, I can’t access everything on my iPad that I can on my cable box. While On Demand programming is coming eventually to the iPad, it looks like only the fee-based programming will be available.
As for live TV, I can only watch on my iPad what’s currently showing on cable right at that moment. There’s no time-shifting or streaming option to watch something that has already aired.
Nonetheless, the live TV option is the most fully realized, and the most useful. When I select a program, access is nearly instantaneous.
Nonetheless, the app seems like a missed opportunity. It seems overly safe. Charter is attempting to give its customers the illusion of freedom, but even that’s not working very well.
Why couldn’t Charter provide a road warrior package that would let me travel with what I currently already pay a lot of money for? The ability to access the programming from anywhere that I had an Internet connection would truly be useful.
All this app does is prove to me something I already knew. The technology is there to enable on-demand everything at any time. That’s what I want, and I’m willing to pay for it.
But to the cable industry, giving the customer what they want seems to be an alien concept.