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Google TV off to a bad start

Google is undisputedly good at advertising and search. I’ve been convinced for a while now that Google & TV make sense, see this IPTV News interview from 18 months ago.

If Google had decided to enable a business model for companies from say Roku to NDS using its advertising capability linked to search, I’d be totally confident in the venture even though success might have still taken time to reach.

But by embracing the whole middleware environment with a complete solution, Google has bitten off too much to chew even for them. Large companies from Intel to Microsoft (including Apple) have all failed their initial entry into the TV market. Different reasons apply in each case; one commonality is the size and lack of agility of these companies that always want to fix the whole problem instead of concentrating on their strengths. In spite of still branding its products as betas, Google has now become such a behemoth that its legendary light-footedness has all but gone.

As Mike Elgan points out in his entertaining computerworld blog, the TV experience is mostly stuff you don’t want. The lean-forward Web experience is one of finding a needle you do want, in a haystack that you don’t. TV’s problem is more about sweeping out all the rubbish. This is where the traditional pay TV business fits in, although it is not clear whether this is cause or consequence.

Google may have some flashy (or should that read HTML5?) animations explaining what Google TV is. However, just reiterating that they’ll deliver the best of the Web and the TV together is not reason enough for this to happen.

So …  what actually needs fixing for the Web and TV to Merge?

  • 1. reliability or stability of the set-top-boxes (or stuff inside the connected TV)
  • 2. ease of use of the user interface
  • 3. navigation within all the newly available content

Starting with the last item on this list, Google’s premise seems to be that they will be in a better position to resolve the difficult issue of content navigation. They do indeed have a unique selling point here with their search technology. But the other blocking point needs to be fixed first. I have 6 separate devices in my living room, all with the latest firmware; I can crash any of them, with sometimes just a few button presses. Android, the operating system that will power Google TV, is still pretty shaky, and that is a no go in my book. The lack of robustness of the demos at Google’s I/O event that amused many of the bloggers present, is telling in this respect.

Working up the list, despite its relative failure to date, Apple TV introduced the poster Art concept that all modern TV UI now mimic with variable success. Nobody has yet provided an adequate solution to navigating Web amounts of content from a lean-back TV viewing posture. Should Steve Jobs up the Apple TV status from its official “hobby project” to something more strategic, then whomever can fix this usability issue, second in my list, Apple can.

As for the first blocking point, Google delivered Android for the Smartphone at breakneck speed. But in so doing, confused the market with a multiplicity of unstable versions. This is almost the opposite of MacOS on the iPhone.  Apple’s closed approach furthermore ensures both a seamless user experience and a certain level of quality. Google’s open approach can open up a Pandora’s box of faulty or incompatible apps. For robustness in the TV space one would more naturally look to the NDS’s or the OpenTV’s of the world to fix this issue.

If I were Eric Schmidt, I’d put Android for TV back into the R&D labs for another couple of years. Then choose a partner, or to be more true to their philosophy, publish open API’s for anyone to monetise OTT content through an ad system designed for hybrid TV. Going for gold during a rush, the way Google is now doing is risky business and they may well fail. If they just sold the shovels, Google would be sure to succeed and they could always buy back into the whole TV experience when the dust settles.

Combining the Web with TV, which is the Google TV bottom line, has been tried more times than any industry expert can count.

If it finally succeeds because big HD screens let you read text in the living room and devices let you interact with cloud based services, maybe with voice control or gesture based interfaces, then surely it’s the set makers that stand to win. I don’t see how current the Google-Sony-Logitec alliance could withstand the strains of success.

If the glue that finally sticks the Web and TV together turns out to be a reshaped entertainment and media ecosystems, with OTT becoming the norm and content flowing directly to TV’s through bit-pipes, then we would see a fragmentation of the content industry. Google could then dominate this space just like it does the Internet – thanks to its search/advertising model. However, the advent of file sharing and the MP3 saga have woken the sleepy content industry.  I don’t believe they will let Google reach such prominence here. Even if I’m wrong and they do, what revenues does Google derive from MP3 file sharing, legal or otherwise?

Quality live TV & film are still associated with subscription services. During the advent of the Internet over the last decade, the Pay TV industry has only gotten stronger with rising numbers of subscribers. TiVO tried to innovate a new model but has seen its active subscriber base drop from 3.3m to 2.5m in the last 18 months.

An executive from the TV industry once told me that young enthusiastic techies like myself had been explaining to him how new technology would radically change the TV business for over ten years. This conversation took place over five years ago! His point was, and I suppose still is, that for fifteen years, waves of technical change have only reinforced the basic pay TV model. The still topical world recession hasn’t dented their subscriber numbers.

Let me revisit the content navigation issue once more. Beyond the sheer mass of available content where Google’s search will solve problems, the problem is also going to be about home networks. There’s no point having a great search engine if it cannot index the content on all the different devices in the home. Google is no better equipped than others to achieve seamless home networking. In fact, some like the proponents of the DLNA standard are probably better equipped for this.

I’ll end with lack of clarity from Google TV’s positioning.

Google champions the search paradigm where revenue is generated from advertising. With it’s Android operating system, Google is moving also into the iTunes/Appstore model where revenue is generated from the sale of apps. It’s not clear to me how Google will be able to play both hands simultaneously on the TV.

A blog entry by Vintner: If Google TV were a bicycle, I’m a fish also points to the lack of clarity. This fun read states that Google is no longer a start-up and that pushing technology is no longer enough, even if it’s cool technology.

Indeed, there’s already too much technology in the crowded TV space. What the industry desperately needs are viable business models to enable OTT content flows to complement – rather than replace  – existing pay TV platforms. So Google, please put your TV technology back in the R&D lab where it belongs and bring us the tools to find & monetise video from the web on the TV.

10 thoughts on “Google TV off to a bad start

  1. […] It always made sense that Google would somehow crack the TV Market but I said from the outset in May 2010, that Google TV wasn’t the right way to start. So why the all the fuss now […]

  2. I’m sorry for their losses, but It kind of seems OK to have the acting CEO of Logitech say:
    “Google TV or the child of Google TV or the grandchild of Google TV will happen. The integration of television and the internet is inevitable, but the idea that it would happen overnight in Christmas 2010 was very misguided.”.

  3. Ben, I enjoyed reading your article and agree with your analysis. Although I feel there are few more areas which will continue to be relevant – service ownership, access to online quality content, price point and quality of service. Clarity on who will own the customer service bottom-line – the ISP, CE vendor or Google itself, similarly quality content still lies within studio vaults and unless there is a win-win situations, viewers will have to satisfy with like of YouTube or other paid subscriptions

  4. Google TV is still a real attempt at TV and Web convergence, capitalizing on new powerful chipsets provided by Intel and that’s a move forward into innovation: I value this.
    One may rightly criticize the lack of stability of the Android OS, the heterogeneity of UI when switching services (Netflix, Pandora, Amazon, …) or the required use of keyboard for Web browsing, it’s still a nice attempt to foster new usages, taking advantage of 2 Google strengths: search capabilities and App store linked to Android.
    I have noticed 2 other specificities: the “HDMI in” which means TV stream will be handled by another device, Google bypassing TV decoding and pay TV security management (a clever trick), and the search engine that mix at the same level TV channels contents with various contents coming from the web (dominant broadcasters will not be pleased).
    At Orange, based on the same Intel technology, we have developed a fully different approach, targeting Openess and TV and web cross fertilization: read more at http://goo.gl/axT4. One might say it’s natural, we are an operator and we make operator designed-for products! 😉

    1. Nicolas, I agree with your points.
      When I wrote this I didn’t realize the strong linkage between GTV and the new Intel chip.
      Also the HDMI-in feature was unknown to me. I don’t really know what to make of it.
      If Google let POCOs (plain Old Cable Operators) provide the pay-TV feeds, then there’s no cord-cutting. Maybe it’s a ruse so POCOs don’t feel so threatened.
      I can’t see it work long term in my living room though. If your aiming for the “second box” position then copy Apple’s blueprint.
      Anyhow POCOs aren’t that dumb.
      I am now totally confused with what Google is trying to achieve.

  5. Great post as usual Ben, and I overall agree with all that was said above, but would like to add a few comments. Even if everything happens on the laptop nowadays, there is a difference of behaviour between laptop TV and living room TV. Regardless of the trends of young people, as soon as they leave mummy’s and daddy’s home, the first thing they will buy is a large screen TV with a nice sofa to sit in front… then comes the differentiator, whether they will hook an AppleTV (or MAC mini) or a PS3 or simply a Multimedia disk drive the end result is the same, the interaction -as mentioned before- will not necessarily happen on the TV. I participated to a focus group from Philips a few years back, and the result is surprisingly the same:
    – Difficult to navigate and search
    – Magic wands and intelligent interfaces help but are not enough
    – Finally, the most important: “I did not buy a HD TV to watch poor quality internet TV (or OTT) content on it; I have my laptop for that”

    As long as quality content is not there it will not happen, and I join Ericsson and Apple for this, the content on TV needs to be driven by another device. The tablet of Ericsson is a brilliant idea answering the need of the customers (technology adapting to the need and not the other way around), same goes for the iPhone and iPad. I use it to browse and select the next content without interfering with what I’m watching, or reading some news about it. Same goes for BBC’s red button: don’t you think it should open a link on a third-party device, not the telly? How many people browse the program guide on a smartphone or a laptop instead of the TV, so that they can keep the current content on?
    The poster art is great indeed, but I agree with Ben, it’s a passive window shopping experience, and won’t grab the person looking for a particular content with a purpose. It’s fine if you want to see trailers of latest movies that came out, but will only capture a little audience. But if you have tagged people with similar taste as well as content you like, and it offers you a selection of “suggested” content, instead of I’m feeling lucky, might be more suitable.
    The last point is crucial, content everywhere. When I buy a DVD or Blu-ray or even when I download it on Sony shop or iTunes, it isn’t seamlessly available everywhere. So I can’t -at the spur of the moment- get content on my portable media player to watch on the plane or on the way. Need to plan in advance grab, encode/transcode and this only when it is possible to do. For some reason, this never happens for me, or am I just too disorganised?

    I’m in my thirties, and feel a tad has-been compared to my sister in her twenties and my cousin in his teens, but the trend is the same: content on laptop while at parents place, but moving to the Living TV while keeping the laptop and portable media player or smartphone as well while on the go.

  6. Je viens de trouver ce texte sur le blog de David Fauthoux qui était dans la salle à l’IO de Google ou la Google TV a été annoncée:
    “(…)Pas trop envie de parler de Google TV, la deuxième soi-disant grosse annonce du jour. C’est tellement obsolète la télé. J’avais l’impression que ça faisait kiffer tous les quarantenaires de la salle mais aucun trentenaires ou moins. En tout cas, pas moi. Surtout quand je vois que les jeunes passent plus de temps devant Internet que devant la télé and growing.” (http://davidfauthoux.wordpress.com/)

  7. One year down the line, and I certainly agree on the sticking points named in this article for integration of the Web and television by Google TV, or any other player.

    But watching the Big G’s new advert, I was again struck by the question….. what is this offering that a laptop hooked up to a TV cannot? The promise of lots of content in one place isn’t new, many players (including Apple and its sky-high iTunes prices) claim this. Ease of use – I can’t help but doubt that it will be more accurate and comfortable than a mouse and keyboard, no matter how advanced the remote control. Stability – my laptop only very rarely crashes.

    I’m all for reducing the number of devices in the living room and moving the “connected TV” vision forwards, I just wonder whether the Google TV advert will pan out as promised. Looking forward to being proven wrong however!

  8. Ben

    Very sharp analysis, as expected.
    You have to understand where this project comes from. Initially Google wanted to create some OTT service , but looking at the YouTube non success, also looking at the doomed picture of the Joost and Veoh, they had to look at something different.
    The content owners will for sure gate any discussion on OTT content, and this is where Google and Apple might be “short”. Digital TV operators have the connections with content providers and consumenrs, so they just need to ride the “TV Everywhere train”.
    Google decided to go the aggregation route, which is not bad per say, it is what Tivo has tried to do for so many years, but the difference between the 2 is a 10-100 x times more financial ressources, so it has a better chance to fly.
    I believe more in a model where the search will be initiated on another device, like you search and set up on PC for your Netflix.
    Interesting to note Ericsson IPTV team has developed a special tablet for that, while Comcast CEO was showing at NCTA in May, a iPad controlling your STB!
    Look now at the rumours on the new Apple TV that will stream form the cloud, this is a pure OTT device that if still not able to stream Flash will stay a hobby!
    The holly grail is probabaly somewhere in between, not the fat lady (Microsoft) has not sang yet as they still have not released something better then MediaCenter of lame Xbox for OTT. Looking at recent lay off of exces, does not look good.
    What is clear at least is that having the apps following you on any screen : phone, PC and TV makes sense as the User Experience wil follow you everywhere you go, pationating no?

    1. I agree with all of you insights Thierry except perhaps the last one.
      Despite having spent ages myself pushing for an app environment at Orange (I mean who wouldn’t want to mimick Apple’s iPhone success?) I am getting the feeling from this whole debate that Apps may not be more than a gimmick on the lean-back TV. Personnalising the experience as you rightly point out will be important, but might that not come from other screens than the TV? Nobody has fixed the issue about the TV being a familly/community device unlike mobile & PC. I wonder if iPads will be personal or family based …

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