Google has a runaway hit with Chromecast, the cheap, lightweight adapter for slinging Internet video to HDTVs, selling millions of the $35 dongles (just 30 bucks on Amazon!) since its launch last summer.
So word that Google is staging a renewed push to bring the heftier Android TV platform into set-tops and connected TVs confounded some industry observers: Why would Google risk confusing consumers about which one to pick, and force developers to build for two separate device types? Shouldn't the simpler, proven Chromecast demand its full focus?
And there's this point: The company already tried to embed the Android OS into TVs and streaming devices with Google TV -- and failed spectacularly.
Google now is trying to woo developers to build apps for Android TV, a refashioned version of the previous Google TV stack that takes a simpler approach, The Verge reported last week. The company's goal is to end up with a well-stocked storefront with video and games apps in a consistent, searchable interface. Google has been showing developers screenshots of the new platform with Google apps like Play Movies and YouTube along with apps from Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, Vevo and games, according to the report.
At first glance, the Android TV strategy doesn't appear to offer much beyond the $99 Apple TV except games and the nebulous promise of better search and recommendation. Nor does it look like it will be a whole lot different than Amazon's spanking-new Fire TV or Roku boxes, both of which are positioned as lightweight game devices as well as video streamers.
Meanwhile, the cheap-and-dirty Chromecast already delivers what most people want: easy access to Netflix, YouTube, HBO Go, Pandora, Hulu Plus and more, and the platform has since opened up to any app developers that comply with Google Play policies. Chromecast also supports the company's ramped-up efforts to sell digital media through Google Play.
But Android TV is a smart play, and it's one that Google needs to remain competitive in the connected-TV wars.
Last November, I asked Mario Queiroz, VP of product management at Google - who oversees both Chromecast and what was then known as Google TV -- why the company was continuing to invest in two different television projects.
"Google doesn't place only one bet when it sees a market opportunity," he said. "There are a number of TV and set-top manufacturers interested in having an operating system running apps in their devices," Queiroz continued, noting that most of the millions of HDTVs that have around the world aren't currently Internet-enabled.
At this point, Google isn't interested in discussing Android TV. The company declined to comment on the latest leaked info.
So let's address the question of why Chromecast isn't enough for Google. First, it lacks a remote control, and instead uses smartphones or tablets for playback and browsing. True, that's part of its brilliance (it keep costs down), but many people are more comfortable of using a dedicated thing in their hand to interact with their TV. Plus, for games, a dedicated set-top and corresponding controller are crucial (Android TV will come with an optional one, according to The Verage).
In addition, the more-powerful Android TV lets Google deliver a TV apps storefront directly on TV. That's key to selling games and getting people to use other interactive apps on the biggest screen in the house (access to Google Hangouts or, say, Gmail). And an Android TV device will be able to suggest content you may be interested in -- again, on the TV, where you are more likely to debit $4.99 from your Google Wallet to rent "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" in HD.
Also consider that if, at some point, Google introduces a more TV-ish video service -- whether that's something that looks like Netflix or something closer to traditional pay-TV -- it would want a more robust set-top than the passive, receiver-like Chromecast.
And it's worth pointing out that Roku already has executed the same multi-device strategy that Google is embracing. Roku provides a lineup of three different set-tops at different price points; it just launched the $50 Chromecast-like HDMI stick; and it has cut deals with TV manufacturers to embed the Roku software and service into their products. The evolving streaming-media device market is showing consumers are open to different form factors and features, depending on what they're interested in.
As for learning from the Google TV debacle, it's a safe bet the same mistakes won't be repeated.
Google TV launched with prodigious fanfare in 2010 with major partners like Sony, Intel and Dish Network. The problem: The powerful hardware needed at the time to run Google TV made the products too expensive -- and anyway, consumers weren't really interested in the primary feature of integrated search across linear TV and online video sources. It solved a problem nobody had a burning need to fix.
Android TV should be a more efficient package of software. (And in the four years since the first iteration of Google TV, silicon vendors deliver much more processing bang for the buck.) And instead of fully relying on third-party hardware manufacturers, Google itself could sell an Android TV device. At the same time, the approach also offers an open platform for other consumer-electronics firms to embed it into their HDTVs, Blu-ray players and other gadgets -- to hitch their wagon to Google's star. Google has successfully established that model with its own Nexus tablets, which compete with Android-based devices from Samsung and others.
Of course, Android TV could end up doing a face-plant if the concept isn't executed correctly. But it's not too late for Google to successfully plant a flag in the Internet set-top market -- and snag more share in a fast-growing segment that could become the way most people watch TV in the future.
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