Thursday, May 20, 2010

Google TV: Not ready for prime time?

As I write this, the self-congratulatory interviewing of Google's launch partners for Google TV is still going on at the I/O Conference, but the important details of Google TV are now public. First, the details that have leaked over the last month or so are generally true:
  • Google TV will be based on Android (Version 2.1, not 2.2, even though the first products won't ship until this fall) and Chrome.
  • Google has been working with Dish Network for some time, and Google TV will be integrated with Dish's DVRs.
  • Google's hardware partners are Intel (providing Atom CPUs and chip sets), Sony (providing Internet-enabled HDTVs and a Google TV-compatible Blu-Ray player) and Logitech (with a forthcoming set-top box).
  • The first distribution partner will be Best Buy.
  • Amazon and Netflix have agreed to make their sites and content available to Google TV (no big deal, because both companies have policies of making their video content available virtually everywhere).
Some of the details of Google TV:
  • It brings the Google search engine to TV, where users can search for content, either from their video service provider (cable, satellite or IPTV) or on the web, using a "Quick Search" bar like Chrome.
  • It has its own "home page" that can be used for keeping track of favorite series and applications.
  • It supports (and relies heavily upon) Flash Video for displaying web video.
  • Google TV-enabled devices will connect to conventional set-top boxes via HDMI and IR Blaster remote controls, which is what allows Google TV devices to display both web and service provider video content.
  • If conventional set-top box vendors implement Google's control protocol, Google TV devices can serve as their Interactive Program Guides, request future shows to be recorded on their DVRs, and perform other functions.
  • Google TV can create a home page for a television series "on the fly", linking to available episodes from cable, satellite and IPTV providers, as well as on-demand episodes available on the web from various sources.
  • Live video can be overlayed on web content in a small picture-in-picture window; this is useful for viewing sports game stats while watching a game in real time, or for doing IMDB lookups while watching a television show or movie.
  • Since the key user interface for Google TV is Chrome, users can search for and access music, images and other content along with video.
  • Android applications that don't require smartphone functionality will work on Google TV; applications can also be written to take advantage of Google TV's APIs (one application demonstrated could take closed captions and translate them from English to another language for non-English speaking viewers.)
Those are the positive bullet points. Here's why I think that Google "pulled the trigger" on Google TV too soon:
  • Google's partners plan to start shipping and selling compatible hardware this Fall in time for the 2010 Christmas season, but the Android Marketplace, Google TV SDKs and Web APIs needed to develop new applications, integrate other devices with Google TVs and take full advantage of the web platform won't be released until early 2011. The entire platform should be available as open source in Summer 2011. In short, that means that the only source for optimized content and applications for at least six months will be Google, Sony, Logitech and a handful of chosen partners who get early access to the platform. 
  • Google has published a list of recommendations for how web video providers can customize their content for Google TV. Much of it is common sense, but when it comes to formats and codecs, Google recommends Flash Video using H.264 1080i. There's no mention of WebM in the recommendations, and it wasn't mentioned anywhere in the Google TV announcement. It sounds like the Google TV and WebM teams haven't been talking to each other.
  • The standard video I/O for Google TV-enabled devices will be HDMI. If your HDTV is an older model without HDMI, or your set-top box uses component video rather than HDMI, you're out of luck.
  • Much of Google TV's ability to interact with service providers' set-top boxes depends on those vendors' (and their service provider customers') support of Google's IP control protocol. Today, only Dish Networks/Echostar supports the protocol. Unless Google TV becomes wildly popular, Dish's competitors aren't going to adopt Google's technology.
  • Most of the power of Google TV requires a full keyboard for doing searches. In fact, they never even demonstrated an on-screen keyboard. It's anyone's guess as to how eagerly consumers will adopt using a full keyboard rather than a conventional television remote.
  • One of the things that was so impressive about the WebM announcement yesterday was the breadth of industry support for the format--hardware, software and services. Google has been unable to get anyone else beyond the hardware partners first rumored months ago to sign onto Google TV. Whether that's due to the cost of Intel's hardware platform, Sony's "my way or the highway" approach to collaboration with partners, or other factors, is still a matter of speculation, but it's been widely reported that both Samsung and Panasonic were approached to join the consortium and refused.
  • Google TV will still be subject to the policies of web video providers. Google referenced and showed a number of Fox television shows; they even showed a home page for the series "House" that included icons for getting old episodes from Hulu. Yet, they studiously avoided going to the Hulu website, instead retrieving the episodes from Amazon. Hulu prohibits viewing its content on television sets and goes out of its way to block systems like Google TV that try to do so. It's likely that the cable operators will also block their sites from Google TV.
Google demonstrated a lot of nice capabilities, and I certainly don't want to take anything away from that. A lot of thought has gone into Google TV. However, I think that they would have been better off to have called this a technology preview, rather than try to rush product into the market for Christmas 2010. By waiting, they would have had more time to sign up hardware partners, to bring additional CPU and chipset vendors on board with lower-cost and lower-power platforms, and to enable Google's developer partners to go to market with applications and content at the same time that the platform first reaches customers' homes. And, they could have baked WebM into the architecture as an essential component.

My feeling is that this could turn out much like Google Wave: By the time it actually gets released for general consumption and is fully usable, most people will have lost interest.

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