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What is Google TV good for anyways?

Not as good for these guys as it will be for me 🙂

Google’s announcement at their i/o conference about Google TV is an exciting one for both A/V nerds and tech/web geeks. Turning your TV into an “open” (I use the word tentatively) platform for development is as enticing a goal as consumer electronics has presented to the larger tech community in a long time. The honest truth is that while the electronics manufacturers are laser-focused on 3D technologies, bringing the web to TV (and TV to the web) is the actual frontier with consumer demand. A poll on my most-trusted of A/V nerd sites (avsforum.com) found that a very large majority (67%) feel that the 3D push is just the industry’s latest gimmick, and they’re right. Even Sony, Google’s only consumer electronics hardware partner at launch, has staked the future of the company on 3D technologies, precisely because it is the kind of content that is currently impossible to stream via the internet (see Wired). It is a last-ditch effort to fight the tide of a world free of physical media. So, what’s the road ahead going to be like for Web TV 2.0 in Google’s hands while the device-makers are focused on 3D?

First, there is no need to compare Apple TV to Google TV. Apple TV is a device that can tune in one channel, iTunes. As it currently is designed, that is all it is.

Leave cable or keep cable?
Existing digital media platforms (Windows Media Center, Boxee, XBMC) are still mostly a hobby. One I enjoy throughly, but also one that was motivated by a desire to leave cable behind entirely. The limited success of these services (each really brilliant pieces of software) reveals just what Google TV will need to be to succeed. For those who don’t want cable (me) it should still be able to pull in all the media I choose (web & locally). However, for wide success this (and all the other platforms I mentioned earlier) they must also be easy enough to bring in existing cable users who are not ready to make the leap. This group isn’t just “all our moms” but is actually all our peers as well, and is primarily why these platforms have failed thus far. Sounds like the new TiVo is pretty good at this end of things, but the history of that company makes it clear that a generic, rented DVR box that is setup by a cable technician is actually enough to keep most users’ interest. While Google TV will have an IR-blaster to change channels and the like, just ask people with DVRs how much TV they watch in real-time and I think you’ll start to see how inconsequential Google TV is to those DVR users. No IR-blaster can control a cable co.’s DVR in that manner.

Has the PC-TV revolution already happened?
Think back to a time before DVRs were everywhere. The very first time you saw a TiVo, you were probably as wowed as the rest of us. But, very rapidly those slick TiVos morphed into grey boxes you get from your cable co. You knew TiVos were still better. Some even crept out into the Cablecard waters, where they were promptly drowned by the strong arm of the industry. And yet, here we are today with most of us having a grey, generic-looking DVR with a confusing, slow and downright ugly UI. And yet, few are switching away from that model. The PC has already been integrated into TVs in the form of DVRs in a way that focused on a way to enhance the content we already get through the cable co. without requiring a keyboard, a mouse and a technical degree to get setup properly. You never even know that a PC is under that TV because you still use a remote and just sit there. Brilliant. Any device that wants to now add on the internet into the mix will need to build up that foundation instead of adding onto it or being a secondary box alongside the cable box. It only doesn’t feel like a revolution because we are all still beholden to the cable co. amidst all of this. If the majority of high income, tech-savvy users know they will have to switch back and forth from DVR to Google TV, I see a hit coming in Google’s ad value in Google TV. I mean, didn’t the “evil” cable company effectively help me to escape ads?

Interface, implementation and UI – up to the partners
Sony sucks at UI and software aside from the PS3. If their Google TV implementation looks like that, they may really have a winner on their hands. If not, Google TV built into TVs may be DOA. Of greater concern is that TVs are a price-driven business (this is why they are all desperate to get you to step up to 3D this summer) and adding hardware costs (Intel processors, dedicated GPUs, keyboards, etc…) into the equation is a gamble in that market. Sony knows that in order for them to stay Sony, they must be able to demand a price premium over their competitors in a market that increasingly doesn’t allow for such pricing. When the chips are down and sales are hurting, Sony is likely to choose 3D over Google TV (again, see that Wired article) as the totality of the company from cameras to camcorders to Sony studios to the A/V team has already been orienting themselves in that direction.

Logitech is a company I really like hardware-wise, and they are the most likely to solve another glaring problem with this platform that many today aren’t mentioning. Keyboards. A keyboard in the living room? Sure there are plenty of options for turning smartphones, tablets and laptops into remote controls (these options I love and already use on my WMC 7 + iPhone combo), but as of right now it sounds like every Google TV blu-ray player, TV and set-top box will come with a keyboard. In my experience, a good, wireless keyboard formatted for the couch runs about $50 retail. Logitech’s own diNovo Mini keyboard is made for this and it runs well over $100, about as much as their incredible Harmony remotes. One thing Apple has taught us is that new forms of interaction are a killer app. Again, the tech savvy among us will use our phones, tablets, etc… but wide adoption will require something better, or at least more sleek than a standard keyboard. Like with Sony, this is an uncertain future, but as Apple has shown there are many advantages to a unified UI, physical interface and appearance. iPods were great because everyone knew how to use one. Am I gonna go to my friend’s house and not know how to get what I want out of his version/implementation of Google TV. Fragmentation sucks, both for users and developers. Even the hardware interface will fragment.

It’s the content stupid!
Web people undervalue content, because the Internet has devalued it, but I think they do so too far to understand TV. The model of the web is one of long-tails, so low-cost content plugged into the right sliver of interest can turn out to be a good investment. TV has always had a limited enough landscape of options/channels that the high value content and the building of walls around it is what drives everything. (I can’t believe I just called TV content high value). In my discussions with friends about why they can’t leave cable behind, even in an age of Hulu, Netflix streaming and Youtube, the top reasons are live events, ESPN and general “don’t know how” “too complex for me” reasons. Even a sliver of high quality content being behind a barrier is a turn off to many to the tune of $50/month+ in subscription fees.

What is easiest/best for users?
I come home, I turn it on, my favorite shows are right there, I click play and I sit down to watch. This is the DVR world of today and this is what must be beat for usability. Google TV just isn’t quite there, but neither are the competitors. I am excited for them to push the other PC-TV platforms though. This competition will be better for me and other hobbyists than it likely will be for Google’s bottom-line.