Google I/O 2010
Part 6: Google TV

The most surprising announcement made at this year's Google I/O, perhaps, was Google TV. Though rumors of a suspected Google TV project leaked weeks ago, many were probably anticipating a simple YouTube-style web service. But Google is doing much more than that, and is positioning Google TV as an alternative to Apple TV, Windows Media Center, TiVo, and other living room-based tech products.

Here's what they announced.

"Google TV is a new platform that we believe will change the future of television," Google engineer Rishi Chandra said during the Google I/O announcement.

Google's living room initiative makes plenty of sense when you discover how much time people spend watching TV. In fact, I think this explains why Apple went after this market with the Apple TV long before they decided to reverse course and field a smart phone product. (Why Apple and others have been largely unsuccessful in the living room remains a matter of some debate, and of course this failure hangs heavy over Google's efforts as well.)

[ Read my overview of the latest Apple TV version. ]

According to Chandra, Americans spend an average of five hours per day in front of the TV, and I bet if we were being honest about it, that number far outstrips the amount of time many of us spend actually working in any given day. From a usage share perspective, Google says there are 4 billion TV users worldwide. That's four times the size of the PC market, double the size of the cell phone market, and a huge percentage of the 6.8 billion people worldwide.

(By comparison, Google's YouTube service, the most popular video service online, has over two billion--think about that, two billion--video views per day. But the average viewer only watches for 15 minutes, in sharp contrast to the five hours the average American spends watching TV each day. This is the gulf Google is trying to cross.)


Of course, the number Google really cares about is $70 billion, which is the amount that is spent on TV advertising in the US every year.

TV's success is non-debatable, but as noted above, few technology companies have made any inroads into this market. What has happened, of course, is that TV-like online services--Hulu, You Tube, and many others--have pushed very aggressively into computing markets, including desktop and laptop PCs, and mobile phones and other portable devices. So these markets are converging, sort of. It's just that none have made appreciable inroads into the living room. Yet.

Why it's different

Google's big innovation for Google TV is to combine traditional TV programming with web-based video services, all from a single UI. Currently, of course, these experiences are quite different. Most people watch traditional TV on their HDTV or standard television, and enjoy web video on a laptop, with its relatively tiny screen. And while there have been attempts to bridge this gap--the Roku box, Apple TV, and so on--none have been successful, and none have offered a seamless experience.

"Video should be consumed on the biggest, best, and brightest screen in the house," Chandra said. "And that's your TV. It's not a PC, it's not a phone, and it's not anything in between." (Take that, iPad.)

Pointing to the failures other tech companies have made in the living room, Chandra said that each of these solutions was flawed in some way. They dumbed down the web, or dumbed down TV. They're all closed solutions, like Apple's tightly-controlled i-ecosystems. And most important, and as noted above, users have to choose between the web and TV; there's no seamless inter-connectivity. Forced to choose between the web and TV, consumers choose TV every time. It's the experience they know and trust. And let's face it, that tangle of wires behind the TV, connecting it to every single device imaginable to man, hasn't exactly made life easier.

So let's add another box. Well, not exactly. Google's strategy involves hardware integration between the underlying Google TV guts and TV sets. And cable TV set-top boxes (though no cable TV companies are currently onboard; satellite provider Dish Networks has signed on). And, for those who aren't currently in the market for a new TV, yes, there will be yet another set top box to add into the mix.

The only solution that's come close to offering this level of integration, perhaps, is Microsoft's Windows Media Center. In Windows 7, Media Center offers Internet TV "channels" in the same program guide as it does traditional TV channels. It's not a horrible experience, honestly. But I'm guessing very few of you have even seen it. The problem is that Media Center, to date, requires a PC in the living room, or an Xbox 360 with Media Center Extender. And while this would "work," it requires a lot of set up and complexity. Certainly more than people have shown they're interested in. (Recently, Microsoft shipped a version of embedded Windows that includes Media Center and could be installed in a simpler set-top box, but no such solutions yet exist.)

With that in mind, let's examine the key goals of Google TV.

What Google wants to accomplish in the living room

As more and more TV shows, movies and other videos show up online, some advantages over traditional TV become apparent. You can find virtually anything online, quickly and easily, using traditional web-based search engines. With TV, there is a limited collection of archival content available via On Demand systems, but finding other content through a set top box's guide software is typically tedious and of course even when you do find something you want to watch, you'll need to schedule a recording through the DVR software and wait. By combining the best of web-based video with the best of TV, Google hopes to create a best of both worlds situation where you can enjoy the video you want on the screen you prefer.

We're pretty much talking theory at this point, but Google TV will offer a search box overlayed on the display. Search for what you want to watch and Google TV will provide onscreen search results that include live TV ("now playing"), future TV (for recording), recorded TV shows (already on the DVR) YouTube results (which could be trailers, clips, or full videos), as well as results from other video sources such as Amazon Video On Demand (which is a paid service) or Hulu (which is free, but advertising supported). By combining these results into a single view, you're bridging a gap that thus far has firmly separately traditional TV and web-based video.

Because Google TV offers a seamless bridge between traditional TV and the web, your TV can become more valuable, offering simple access to other useful web services, right from the couch, and without needing to switch to different devices or video inputs. These include such things as Netflix (TV and movies), Pandora (Internet radio), Picasa Web Albums (personal photos) and even web applications like Gmail and Google Calendar. (Google TV includes a full, Chrome-based web browser, so you can access the entire Internet as well. So you're not limited to whatever services Google or its partners build in.) You can save favorites on the Google TV home screen, just as you do know in your browser, providing you with quick access to the content you like, no matter what kind of content it is.

Questions remain

OK, so this is all very interesting, but many questions remain. Google announced some high-profile partners--Sony, Logitech, Dish Networks--but it needs broader industry support for Google TV to really take off. If this is something that is only available from a few partners, it's going to be a slow boil at best.

For those early adopters that already own HDTVs and subscribe to whatever cable service, Google TV is going to require a set top box with a tangle of wires and "IR blasting," just like Media Center, to control the underlying cable service. This is complicated and hasn't exactly taken off with consumers thus far, so it's unclear why anyone would flock to Google TV now either.

Pricing is an unknown as well. My guess is that the underlying service will be free, but ad supported, but as is so often the case I dream of a subscription nerdvana that never seems to materialize, where for a fee you can enjoy an ad-free experience.

I'm also not sure about the search-driven interface. When you're sitting in front of a computer, typing search queries is natural. But I've done the Media Center thing, and even a wireless keyboard and mouse (more complexity), searching for content this way isn't a great experience. From what I can tell, TV users are browsers, not searchers, and lazily navigating through a guide of available content seems to be what people are used to, and expect. Perhaps over time Google TV can learn about your TV habits and make suggestions based on interests and past usage.

There are also questions about the hardware required for Google TV. Google seems to be going pretty lowball here. There will be HDMI video, of course, an Intel processor, Wi-Fi, and, in the case of the add-on set-top boxes, the dreaded IR blaster interface. It will work with keyboards, and it can use Android-based smart phones as smart remotes, which could offer some interesting capabilities for those of you betting heavily on Google solutions.

[ Read about the new version of Google Android. ]

And then there's the competition. Microsoft has been offering its Media Center solutions since 2002, and of course the Apple TV is the current living room champ from my perspective, though it's apparently not sold very well either. And Apple is now rumored to be preparing an iPhone OS-based Apple TV, which I think makes plenty of sense, and could unleash the collective genius of the iPhone apps developer market on your living room. These are two competitors to watch.

Final thoughts

The living room could well prove to be Google's Viet-Nam, but if this company has proven anything over the past couple of years, it's that it can take on established market leaders, throw a ton of money at something, and gain market share simply by showing up. If you had suggested a year ago that Google would soon overtake Apple in the smart phone market, people would have laughed at you. Today, the notion of Google making web video successful in the living room may sound equally farfetched, but I've stopped questioning such things. If any company can make this work, it's Google. And I say that knowing that the current media darling, Apple, has already somehow failed to take over this market. It just doesn't make sense to bet against Google.