At last week’s Google I/O conference, the search giant revealed plans for new web video technologies, an update to Android, and Google TV. Before we get into what Google TV is, it’s worth noting something that it isn’t – a tablet. (You’re probably thinking, “I don’t need a fancy analyst guy to tell me that Google TV isn’t a tablet, it’s sort of self-evident.” Bear with me.) Apple’s unbelievable early success with the iPad is due in large part to the fact that the iPad isn’t an entirely new product – it’s a sibling to the iPod touch. However, in addition to extending the iPhone/iPod/iTunes ecosystem to include the iPad, Apple rewrote its apps for the larger form factor and encouraged developers to specifically target the iPad with a segmented app store. Google is now targeting all three screens, the PC, TV, and phone, but missed the opportunity at its annual developer event to promote its vision for things that fit in between the phone and PC. There will be dozens of Android tablets out this year, and none of them will have an optimized experience. I think this is a major missed opportunity.
However, they did launch Google TV, which is based on four technologies: Android 2.1, the Chrome browser, Adobe’s Flash, and an Intel processor. Google TV isn’t a single product, it’s a platform that can be built as a standalone box or integrated into other devices. Logitech has signed up to build a dedicated Google TV device, Sony promises to have embedded Google TV in some of its TVs and Blu-ray players in time for the holidays, and DISH Network will have a settop box with Google TV in it at some point. Best Buy has agreed to sell these things.
Google TV allows consumers to browse the web on their TV, watch YouTube on the TV, and search for content to watch. Searches return results with both traditional broadcast and cable results mixed with Internet video content. It wasn’t clear what Internet content will be included; when I asked Google if Netflix Watch Instantly shows would be included in search results, they told me to ask Netflix. (At that point I didn’t bother asking about Hulu, which actively blocks its content from Google TV alternatives such as Boxee’s upcoming Box being built by D-Link.)
Since it’s based on Android and supports Flash, Google hopes that developers write apps for Google TV, and the company is extending the Android Market to Google TV to make it easy to find apps. This is far from the first app store concept we’ve seen – even for televisions – but the potential for unique apps is one of the more compelling aspects to the announcement. On the flip side, Google TV doesn’t necessarily have a tuner (unless it’s built into a TV or satellite set top box) and there’s no storage as part of the spec, so there is some setup required to get Google TV to talk to your TV, cable box, or DVR if you actually want to watch or record the traditional TV content you found in your search.
I like Google TV as a platform, but find the initial execution lackluster. The problem is simple: consumers are not willing to attach another device to their TV unless it offers a clear value proposition. For example, game consoles play games and optical disc players play movies and the Roku is an inexpensive way to stream content from Netflix. The Google TV value proposition – search-based directory and viewing Internet content on the TV – does not justify the expense of an integrated solution or the cost and complexity of an external box. (At least Google isn’t also asking for subscription fees – its investment will be repaid with advertising).
But Roku was only successful once the cost of the box dropped below $100, and Google’s Intel-based solution is bound to be more expensive than that. Google needs to get the price down and then either convince cable operators to embed Google TV into the cable boxes they already rent to consumers, or get a much bigger coalition of TV manufacturers to embed it into their sets. Today’s piecemeal approach doesn’t offer consumers enough value and won’t get Google a large enough footprint in the home.