Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Philadelphia's Own Ralph Roberts

Say what you will about Comcast, with the passing of its founder, Philadelphia has lost a legend. At 95, Ralph Roberts was Philadelphia's Steve Jobs. Raised in Germantown, educated at Wharton, and stationed at the Navy Yard during World War II, Roberts' presence in Philadelphia wasn't incidental.

Philadelphia was Roberts' home, and throughout the decades a major source of his philanthropy. But between all of his contributions to his city, none amount to his decision to keep Comcast headquartered in Center City. Comcast Center didn't just redefine our skyline, it redefined our city. Prior to its dominant presence, Center City Philadelphia wasn't a national name. Despite our humble collection of skyscrapers, few outside the tristate area really knew what Philadelphia was "about." Center City - our downtown - was a collection of office buildings promptly closing their doors at five on Friday. To those who worked in Old City or King of Prussia or Cherry Hill, Center City was essentially a vertically elevated, nondescript office park. 

Comcast Center changed that. With an arm reaching coast to coast and everywhere in between, 17th and JFK is full of the hustle and bustle synonymous with Midtown Manhattan. Harried consultants from Dallas and Chicago and Portland rush from full hotels, wheeled suitcases in hand, to play their part in the Philadelphia rat-race while New Yorkers flood Acela trains south to do the same. Many of them are relocating here, growing our population and changing our city.

Ralph Roberts' investment in Center City irreversibly changed our city, and for so much of the good press we've received in the past years, we have Comcast to thank. 

But does Roberts' passing signal a new era for the cable giant, one that has grown into a multimedia conglomerate with the transparent aspiration of being a power player in the information technologies game? With Ralph Roberts, Jr. still at the helm, Comcast remains a family owned company. 

This new era has seemingly been in the works for years. Ever since acquiring NBC-Universal and donning the Comcast logo with NBC's rainbow peacock, Comcast has been more than just a cable company. While the conglomerate has yet to fully integrate its parts, its ambition is evident. 

The Comcast Innovation and Technology Center promises to inject Comcast into the technologies arena. But to date, its mission is unclear. Will Comcast be bridging the gap between Philadelphia and the Silicone Valley? Will the Innovation and Technology Center be a vertical lab for software and hardware geeks to toil away on endlessly funded R&D? Will the driverless car come from 18th and Arch? Or will Comcast stick to its rigid profit-first analytical stance that resists the urge to invest in anything that can't be bundled into a sale? Will the Innovation and Technology Center simply innovate improvements and copies of the real tech coming off the west coast? 

As a geek, I hope for the former. But the latter will still be a boon for an already booming Center City. Still, to imagine Comcast bringing innovation back to the east coast, back to the Workshop of the World where American innovation began, fills me with binary-coded glee. And why shouldn't they take the risk? Unlike thriving startups throughout the Bay Area and the Cascade Valley, Comcast has more money than they know what to do with. They have the cash to do more than reinvent Netflix or offer us home security. 

They could be investing in truly effective mobile cable or wireless power. As effective and powerful as Comcast currently is, they successfully follow while they could be boldly leading us into the unknown. The Silicone Valley may be known for laptops, smartphones, and software, but their research has grown far beyond our screens and into artificial intelligence, bioengineering, and is redefining the once un-redefinable: the American auto industry. 

In Comcast's new era, the company that wants to fancy itself on par with Google should be looking at what Google is doing behind the scenes, and it should be grabbing a piece of that and taking it a step further. Comcast has plenty of well groomed suits to bring in heaps of profits, but that means nothing to a future that won't need cable internet. It's time to start spending money on the hoodie wearing nerds who are building our future from suburban San Francisco and Seattle, and bringing them to Center City.

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