For many of us, the most exciting part of Google I/O today was the announcement of Google TV. Google and its partners are trying to make the connected living room a success and bridge the gap between the computer and the television at long last.
Jolie O’Dell has already given us a run-down of what Google TV is, but what does Google TV mean for existing players in this space and the future of connected devices? How does Google TV impact companies like Apple, Boxee, PopBox and others?
Potential to Bring Connected TV to the Mainstream
In its demonstration — which was notably marred by technical problems — nothing presented by Google really blew us away. That isn’t to say that the ideas and technology behind Google TV aren’t impressive — they are — it’s just that other products have been on the market for years that offer the same capabilities.
For instance, with the exception of the stand-alone web browser, practically every feature displayed in Google TV can also be found in the latest TiVo. Now, TiVo isn’t as sexy as it was a decade ago, and the company and its execution have lots of problems. But when you consider that features like viewing photos, streaming music and searching for upcoming programming were possible on TiVo back in 2003, and that viewing content from Amazon Video-On Demand, YouTube and Netflix has been possible since 2006 or 2007, we kind of wanted to see something that was a bit more impressive.
But maybe impressive isn’t the point. Maybe the point is to finally bring this technology — which until very, very recently existed only in the niches of the consumer electronics industry — to the mainstream. I recognize that just because I invested a summer into meticulously and methodically turning my Mac mini into the ultimate home theater PC doesn’t mean that the average person cares all that much.
Google TV offers up lots of potential for users who want a connected entertainment experience. While I still want to see some technical details on how well Google TV will work alongside set-top boxes from various cable companies (does on-demand work, for instance?), the fact that a box can be integrated into an existing set-up and provide one integrated, controllable experience is pretty compelling.
This Is a Competitive Space
Google may have been working on Google TV for two and a half years, but it is entering a very competitive space. It’s great that Sony is on board to bring the Google TV experience to some of its Bravia HDTVs and Blu-ray players, but let’s not forget that Samsung, LG and Panasonic consistently outsell Sony in the LCD TV space and that they all have their own IPTV solutions and partners in the works. LG partnered with DivX earlier this year to bring DivX TV to its Blu-ray players, Samsung and Yahoo have partnered together with Internet@TV, and Panasonic has its Viera Cast system.
Now, this isn’t to say that any of those options are as compelling or complete as Google TV — but if we have learned anything from TiVo, it’s that best features don’t always win, especially if something is included for free.
This is before we even address competing set-top box products like Boxee, PopBox, Roku and others. Boxee, for example, has already established a base of users via its computer and Apple TV platform. When the Boxee Box is released, it has the potential to bring even more users into the fold. While Boxee doesn’t integrate into the live TV experience like Google TV, it does support third-party apps, can do regular web browsing and also seamlessly links to existing media libraries.
And don’t forget about the cable companies! If Google can convince more service providers to follow the Dish Network lead and partner with Google, it could be a tremendous game changer, but cable companies haven’t made their move into connected TV yet. That doesn’t mean they won’t. Again, just as cable company DVRs snuffed out much of TiVo’s fire, it could be a big challenge to any connected TV platform — including Google TV.
Hulu: The Elephant in the Room
While Hulu was shown in the Google TV demo, Hulu was not ever mentioned by name, nor was its programming ever accessed. When Ben Parr asked about Hulu support today, Google dodged the question by saying that it was technically feasible but ultimately up to the content provider.
We find it extremely unlikely that Hulu will openly support Google TV. While we do expect Hulu to come to television sets in a supported way, we imagine it will be through its own set-top box or a licensed software it sells to TV manufacturers or cable companies.
The power of Hulu should not be underestimated; as great as the idea of a connected living room is, the reality is that we care less about watching YouTube videos on the big screen than we do with watching the most recent episode of The Simpsons or a classic episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show or NewsRadio.
A lack of Hulu support doesn’t portend disaster for Google TV, but it still leaves an opening — especially in the U.S. — for whichever company can manage to get Hulu onto their connected TV platform first.
Usability and Reliability Will Matter
While some of the technical problems in today’s Google TV demonstration could be blamed on the fact that Wi-Fi in the building wasn’t great and that so many BlueTooth devices were conflicting with the product — a product, we must add, that isn’t complete — the fact that there were so many problems in that demonstration made attendees very nervous.
As one of the Googlers said in the demo, one of the key aspects of television is that it ‘just works.’ For connected TV to work — whether it be from Google or someone else — it has to be reliable, usable and consistent. I can deal with rebooting my computer if it starts acting weird. I don’t feel the same way about my television set. As it stands, I already curse my cable company provided HD-DVR box for being finicky and having performance issues; if I have to reboot my entire entertainment system because an Internet video gets out of control, I’m not going to be very happy. I also have no desire to have to play tech support for my family when the TV stops working.
Not having had any hands-on time with Google TV, I can’t speak for how well it works compared to the competition — but this is an area that Google needs to absolutely have at 100% at launch. Release early and often may work on the web, but users don’t want to have to troubleshoot their devices in the living room.
Learn From Apple and Microsoft’s Mistakes
Both Apple and Microsoft have tried their hand at the connected TV space, with MSN TV (née Web TV) and Apple TV respectively. Both efforts failed. While Apple continues to sell the Apple TV product, the company still says in conference calls that it considers the product ‘a hobby.’ That’s Apple-speak for ‘we don’t sell that many.’
MSN TV was an idea that was too ambitious for its time. Dial-up Internet access over the television just wasn’t fun and digital cable was still emerging, which limited web-to-television interaction. Apple TV’s biggest problem has always been that it is just too closed. While you can make your Apple TV really slick by putting Boxee or XBMC on it, the default set-up is just too limited for most users, especially when practically every Blu-ray player on the market is both wireless and supports Netflix.
Hopefully Google and its partners will learn from Apple and Microsoft’s mistakes by not trying to push the market beyond its own readiness and by not limiting its uses. For the latter, it looks like Google has that under control. Google TV runs on a version of Android and will run on third-party applications. Google is also already encouraging developers to optimize their websites and web apps for Google TV.
Whether it becomes the future of TV or not, the company has the financial power and brand recognition to really help sell connected TV.
What do you think Google TV means for the future of IPTV as a whole? Let us know in the comments.
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