Android TV, like Google TV, still too ahead of its time

Name five devices that run on Google's Android TV operating system. If you managed to do that without hurriedly running to a Google search, you are a rare breed. Ask the average user, even someone who is a longtime Android user, and you will probably get a blank stare.

There is something about smart TV sets that still hasn't managed to break through to the mass market. Although there have been millions of Internet-connected TVs with their own built-in operating systems sold to consumers, the vast majority of those millions will probably only tell their friends that they have a "smart TV" or, if they are very brand-loyal, a "Samsung TV" or "LG TV." It would be a very rare event for a conversation to come up, even among roughly-in-the-know tech heads, where you'll find someone bragging about their "webOS TV" or their "Android TV."

Moving to the other side of the spectrum, even among the early adopters who already have a Nexus Player or an Nvidia Shield, which in and of themselves may be plugged into a completely separate smart TV, you might throw them for a loop if you mention that you have a television set with Android TV baked right into it (like all of Sony's 2015 sets or a limited number of Sharp and UK-based Philips TVs).

In other words, over a year after Android TV was first introduced, it is complete deja vu compared to the initial rollout of the preceding platform known as Google TV.

An uphill battle

The problem is in the vague answer to this question: what is Android TV? Some people will say it's a new operating system for Android-powered game consoles. Others will say it's Google's new set-top box designed to bring smart features (Netflix, Hulu, etc) to any TV. And yet another group might define it as a new operating system that is built into high-end television sets. All of these answers are correct. But those aren't the only answers you'll get. You'll also have people confused by cheap third-party Android-powered HDMI sticks, and believe that's what the term "Android TV" means. Some will think you're referring to Chromecast. And of course, there will be the final group of people who have no idea because they've never heard of it — the majority of casual TV and set-top box purchasers today.

It's a little bit more difficult to define than when someone asks "what is Android?" The answer: "Google's operating system for smartphones and tablets." I love my LG smart TV with built-in Google TV (based on Android 4.2). I need only one power outlet and one third-party controller to access live TV, all my streaming video services, TV-optimized Android games, my local video content stored on my 1TB USB hard drive, and even ripped DVD ISO files that can be played through the Kodi Android app.

Not only that. Because it is at its core, a full and complete Android operating system, I have infinite possibilities for my TV to communicate with everything that my smartphone can. That means if I start watching a movie, my Philips Hue lights dim. When it's time to head to work, I get an on-screen notification. And when it's time for my favorite network TV show, I get a pop-up message asking me if I want to tune to the appropriate channel.

I don't need to swap out HDMI cables. I don't need to make room in my power strip for an external set-top box. And Android TV offers the same kind of infinite flexibility and customization, but with much more power and capacity. Again, this is all with one device, one thing to plug into the wall, and one wireless controller. In a world where cord cutting continues to be more and more prevalent, it seems like TVs with this kind of functionality would be flying off the shelves.

Of course, right now the cheapest TV set with built-in Android TV is around $800. That needs to be combined with the fact that anyone who bought a TV within the last 4-5 years is likely not interested in upgrading yet. And therein lies the problem. Consumers have expected to trade up their smartphones every two years — if not sooner. Major purchases like TV sets have not come anywhere close to fitting into that mold.

The Future

Google TV only lasted about 3-4 years before Google began drying up support resources and developer encouragement for it. That isn't even long enough for one full cycle of TV buyers. Will Android TV suffer the same fate? If so, it wouldn't be because of lack of consumer interest. It would be because Google didn't give it enough of a chance to fit into the realities of the TV market.

So that leaves the other aspect of Android TV — its use in set-top boxes, both designed as streaming video players as well as high-end open-source game consoles. But that's still a niche market. Someone who wants to stream Netflix and Hulu is going to buy a Roku or an Amazon Fire TV stick — not a $100+ box using Android TV (a name, again, most people have never heard of).

This all boils down to the fact that building a TV operating system using the same constraints and APIs as a smartphone operating system is seemingly always going to have an inherent disconnect. If Android TV is to succeed, it needs to ensure that devices released today will be supported for at least five years. That will prevent early adopters from shunning the platform in disappointment, as well as encourage later adopters to realize that Android TV is a worthwhile investment.

Final Thoughts

To date, it looks like Google's playbook has been just like Google TV all over again, just with a slightly refreshed interface. The level of marketing is also just as nonexistent. It could very well be that Android TV plays out exactly like its predecessor, with no change to the playbook, which would be very unfortunate to any loyal Android TV buyer.

Unfortunately, Android TV doesn't appear to be grabbing the market by the horns, so it might end up being another dud as well (Which I hope not). The only way it will survive is if Google actually appears as though it is fully invested and committed to the platform in a long-term capacity. If it decides to stop providing updates in a year or two, like it did with Google TV, it will just end up being another disappointment.