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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.