Why Google TV will win

Written on:December 15, 2011
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Google Chairman Eric Schmidt caused some raised eyebrows last week when he claimed that by next summer “the majority of the televisions you see in stores” will come with Google TV. Few took his claim seriously, some even called him insane. It’s easy to see why people wouldn’t believe Schmidt. After all, Google TV’s first iteration tanked miserably. But I’m gonna come out the lone dissenter here and say: Schmidt’s got it right.

Okay, he may have the timing wrong, but I think that Google will absolutely come out on top of this. It will dominate the smart TV world much in the same way it now dominates the smartphone world.

It took me some time to arrive at this conclusion. I liked some of the ideas behind the first iteration of Google TV, but like everyone else, was disappointed by the execution. Google’s problem was that the company and its two consumer electronics partners built early-adopter devices that were supposed to appeal to the mainstream consumer — and in turn, didn’t do right for either.

This time it’s different

I have to admit, I was once again a little underwhelmed when the new Honeycomb version of Google TV hit my review unit. Sure, it felt like a big step — for Google TV. I also got the sense that the system is much more robust and capable, and the availability of apps made a big difference. But I still didn’t find myself using it very much, and have been postponing the writing of a review for weeks now.

But then I realized: Something is different this time around. I poked around in web forums and Google+ discussions for Google TV users, and found that many are very enthusiastic. Not so much about the update as it arrived on their machines, but about the apps they could install on it and the ways they could customize their Google TV experience. These early adopters rightly realized the potential this platform offers. Combine that with its huge potential for growth in the CE space, and you’ll see why Google TV very likely wins the smart TV race.

Five reasons why Google TV will be huge

Still not convinced? Then let me break it down for you:

Google TV offers some options to customize your home screen out of the box, but users – and CE makers – can also completely replace the default launcher.

Customization. We’ve long heard rumors that both Vizio and Samsung will launch a customized Google TV experience once their devices hit the market in 2012. Think of it as something like HTC’s Sense UI for handsets, but made for the TV screen. A few days ago, I learned that this is actually something Google TV users can do as well. Want your Google TV home screen look like Ice Cream Sandwich, complete with multiple desktops? Then simply install a different launcher. Does that mean that the vast majority of Google TV users will tinker with the platform in this way? Probably not, even though I could see folks using simple apps to personalize their home screen. But what this really points to is that Google TV can be customized easily, which should give CE makers and service operators a huge incentive to use the platform.

Amazon's app store, installed on Google TV.

Third-party app stores. We can fully expect that third parties will launch their own app stores to promote apps as well as content on Google TV, which could also significantly alter the experience. A cable provider like Comcast may want to supply its customers with a selection of apps that work well with its own services, or a CE maker like Samsung may use its existing relations with developers to switch from building its own app platform to maintaining a separate marketplace. Coincidentally, Google TV hackers recently figured out that the Amazon app store already works on Google TV. Go figure.

Google TV can run multiple apps at the same time, which could be the key for interactive and social features.

Multitasking. That might sound like something you don’t want on your TV — but trust me, you do. Numerous social TV appmakers have all been trying to figure out what you are watching at any given time through apps like IntoNow that use your iPad’s microphone to listen to what you are currently watching. From a technical perspective, that’s cumbersome and awkward. The next step has been to get code to identify your viewing behavior right onto the TV or set-top box to check you in to social TV services or deliver corresponding data to the second screen. Most of these efforts have been around live TV, but Google TV is easily capable of delivering similar and possibly much more advanced experiences with VOD and Internet content. The proof is already in the pudding: Google TV 2.0 ships with an app called TrackID from Gracenote, which uses audio fingerprinting to identify music much in the same way that Shazam does. What’s neat about it is that you can run TrackID while playing a movie on Netflix or watching a video on YouTube. Google has also said that it will enable every app developer to access data on which show is currently running. Combine this kind of broadcast interactivity with app multitasking, and you could come up with all kinds of interesting and unique opportunities that will make the standalone TV widget app look outdated.

Next year will bring us a bunch of new Google TV devices.

The CE market. It’s true, most TV manufacturers already have their own Smart TV platform, or some flavor of Yahoo TV widgets. However, right now, everyone seems to be gravitating towards Google. We already know that Samsung, Vizio and LG all will launch Google TV sets next year, and Sony is already in the Google TV camp. Google has also hinted at more partner announcements, which could mean that we’ll have five or six manufacturers supporting the platform by next year. CE makers will likely still use Yahoo or their own platforms for lower-end models, which are essentially the same as today’s feature phones. But for slightly more expensive models, Google TV could soon become a de facto standard — much like Android has become in the handset market.

Cable set-top boxes may not be sexy, but they could be the key to Google TV's success.

Cable boxes. Even if Schmidt is wrong with his assessment, Google always has a backup plan: The company bought Motorola Mobility earlier this year, and as part of the deal also acquired Motorola’s set-top box business. That makes it all but certain that Motorola will eventually ship Google TV-powered cable boxes, which could bring the platform to millions of legacy TV sets.

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