Google's projects seem to inevitably fall into one of two camps: either they're runaway successes, like Gmail or Chrome, or dismal failures, like Wave. Teetering on the edge right now is Google TV, the company's push for the living room which launched with a bang last year, maintained just enough momentum to reach the holidays, and then fell well short of the CES 2011 splash we'd expected. Call it a reboot, call it a refresh or call it a desperate resuscitation, Google TV is in dire need of some retuning.
Some background first. Announced in May 2010, Google TV's target audience was the four billion TV viewers worldwide who, Google reckoned, watched on average 5hrs a day. TV + search was the concept, a mixture of streaming internet content, broadcast video and DVR integration, with Google's search magic pulling all the strands together. The first products - a STB from Logitech, HDTVs and Blu-ray player from Sony - hit shelves in early October last year.
Make no mistake, the living room has seen many big companies lose their lunch money attempting to bring computing technology over to those on the sofa. Microsoft's WebTV project is one good example of how plenty of financing, manufacturer support and ambitious plans can still have an underwhelming end. It's also a segment which TV manufacturers themselves aren't entirely willing to give up to computing firms: most mid- to high-end HDTVs now come with some sort of network-connectivity option, offering varying functionality that can include Netflix-style streaming, social network access and news widgets.
On the face of it, Google TV stood a great chance. A familiar brand-name, paired with an easy way to navigate the masses of content on offer to TV viewers, and big names like Sony and Logitech onboard (with the promise of Samsung and Vizio to follow) it should've been a runaway success. Instead, the hardware was too expensive in comparison to sub-$100 STBs like Apple TV and Roku - in no small part because Google had opted for an x86 Atom-based platform rather than cheaper ARM-based SoCs - and the usability of the search functionality undermined by remotes bristling with buttons and far too reminiscent of regular keyboards.
Can Google TV be saved? Yes, and it seems - based on rumors and speculation these past few weeks - that the search giant is taking at least some of the necessary steps to revive the platform. Longest-standing is talk of a switch to ARM chips, taking advantage of the low-cost but still 1080p HD-capable processors (already found in Android smartphones and tablets) to drive down prices, either for standalone STBs or integrating into HDTVs and other A/V boxes. Samsung is believed to be looking at ARM-based Google TV products, but you can bet that they're not alone.
That's hardware, but the Google TV software also looks set to undergo some fundamental changes in the near future. Google is believed to be pulling together its three current strands of Android - for phones, tablets and TV - into one single codebase, creating a unified AOSP which is tipped for an unveil at Google I/O in May. As well as making code updates more straightforward for the company, it would also help smooth the way for Android Market access in Google TV, finally delivering the third-party app opportunity initially promised at the platform's unveil.
Third-party apps would dramatically boost Google TV, blowing past any app support currently offered on manufacturer-led smart TV platforms, and - potentially - beating Apple to the same thing with the App Store on the Apple TV. Just as we've seen with Android handsets, the software ecosystem would drive adoption and innovation; Google TV would no longer have to offer a "killer app" out of the box, and developers and content providers could find more straightforward ways to engage with the living room.
With a harmonized AOSP would come increasing cross-over between the platforms. Rather than relying on an Android handset running the Google TV Remote app for voice recognition, the STB itself could do the voice processing with a microphone on a simplified remote; that would reduce button overload and make the system far more approachable for tech-naive users (or, in all honesty, the tech-savvy who would still rather not have to deal with all that when it comes to slumping in front of the idiot-box). Expect to see a significant push for the "connected home" with Google TV playing increasingly well with Android-based tablets. Being able to stream content to a slate somewhere else in the home, or flip video content from a 10-inch tablet onto a 56-inch HDTV with the flick of a finger are compelling use-cases that are easier to sell to a mainstream audience.
Cheaper boxes running unified Android won't be enough on their own, of course. The Revue's integration with DISH Network DVRs was reasonably slick, but with other third-party cable boxes it fell well short. Google also has to iron out its content deals; you wouldn't buy a STB that could tune in to one channel today but not tomorrow, and if Google wants people to consider streaming IPTV in the same way they do traditional broadcast media then it needs to be able to offer the same commitments. Google TV still has the chance to succeed - unusually, Apple treating Apple TV like a hobby for so long has stretched out room for opportunity in the segment - but it needs to do it soon if it's not to end up another failed attempt at the living room.