Friday, May 21, 2010, 10:19 AM ET|Posted by Will RichmondGoogle pulled the curtain back on Google TV ("GTV" for short) yesterday and the debate over whether it will be a game-changer or another in a long line of underwhelming web-TV approaches is already underway. I'm going to plant my stake firmly in the first category - I think GTV looks like a real winner and below I've articulated 5 good reasons why. I'm not saying it's a slam dunk, and there are still some unknowns (starting with price) which will have a huge influence on its adoption. But as I describe below, GTV looks like the right product at the right time.
(Btw, if you need more background on what GTV actually is, see my post from 2 months ago "Here's How Google TV Will Work" and Colin Dixon's guest post below, "Google TV Unites Web and TV in One Experience.")
1. Consumers Want Online Video on Their TVs
The touchstone of a successful new consumer product introduction is simple - does it solve a problem or fill a need? For GTV, the answer is an overwhelming "yes." Consumers want a simple, cost-effective solution for watching online video on their TVs. Millions have already availed themselves of alternative - and often sub-optimal - methods for doing so: connecting their laptops to their TVs, buying a Roku/TiVo/connected Blu-ray player, using their gaming console, etc. There is no question here of "do consumers want online video on their TVs?" They do and there's abundant research supporting the trend already (here, here, here for example). If you need more validation, just ask anyone who's using Netflix streaming.
Moving the online video experience to the TV is the next natural step in the evolution of this exciting new medium. When most online video was short clips and the experience was poor, watching on computers was ok. But now, with HD, full-screen, well-featured experiences gaining prominence alongside the advent of high-quality, long-form programming, the viewing experience wants to move to the living room and the wide-screen HDTV. And it's a virtuous circle - the more the online video experience moves to the living room, the more high-quality content will come online, further reinforcing the value of GTV.
2. It's the Full Internet and It's Open
A main point of skepticism regarding GTV is that other web-to-TV approaches haven't made it big, so why will GTV? It's a very fair question and I think there are 2 very significant differences between past approaches and GTV. The first is that GTV users get the full Internet, not just the bits and pieces that the device provider has made deals with, or those that have invested the time and money to integrate with the device. Fifteen years since the Internet went mainstream, people are conditioned to expect nothing less than full choice and selection. GTV is the first to recognize that a "no boundaries," fully-browsable experience is not a nice-to-have, it's a must-have. The second differentiator is that search is core to the GTV experience, while others have focused mainly on browse. Searching is THE way people are accustomed to finding what they want and the inability to do so simply in other devices and on-screen guides has been a real handicap. GTV blends online expectations into the TV experience; that will feel natural and meaningful for many.
As important as the full Internet is to consumers, GTV's openness is equally important to developers who will build the apps that will make GTV compelling. It's essential to remember the Internet's open standards and development tools have driven its success. With GTV, the full brunt of the Internet's openness is once and for all being brought to the TV, powered by advances in processors that would have been unimaginable until recently. Google's Android OS and Chrome browser help create the platform - at no charge - to make all this happen. Simply put, developers are going to love GTV and the fruit of their imagination is going to astound us.
3. For Content Providers, GTV Should be Love at First Sight
Of course, what good is a new device if there's no good content? This is a problem that all too often plagues new devices (some of you have no doubt heard me mention "Richmond's Law" - that you can't introduce a device AND the content/apps for it simultaneously and expect the device to succeed.) However, in GTV's case, since it's really just leveraging all the great content on the Internet, content shortage won't be a problem. For video providers large and small GTV offers the potential of massive new reach, usage, and importantly new revenue streams, whether from Google ads, their own ads or new paid models. Nothing is required of them, though if they want to optimize for GTV (as with YouTube's new "Lean Back" UI), they can do so very easily.
For cable TV networks in particular GTV is a big-time winner. It doesn't disrupt their traditional model (see reason #5 below for more on that), but does open up all kinds of new interactive content opportunities. Another set of winners are the independent providers that have already attracted audiences online, like blip.tv, Next New Networks and Revision3. Other winners include print publishers like the NY Times, WSJ, Sports Illustrated, etc, who have been avidly building out their video libraries. The independent and print guys were limited mainly to computer-based consumption, but with GTV they get equal on-TV footing for the first time with their cable TV network counterparts. This will make for an exciting new round of content innovation. Lastly, if past is precedent, we can expect Hulu to dig its head further into the sand and block GTV users. That's ok, users will just turn to ABC.com, Fox.com, etc. As GTV and more convergence plays emerge, Hulu's insistence on computer-based viewing only is a self-inflicted bullet to its head (which btw, could be to YouTube's benefit as it seeks to increase its premium content roster).
4. GTV is Part of a Compelling 3-Screen Experience
As important as GTV is to on-TV viewing, it's critical to see its place in the larger context of a 3-screen, converged world. Today "convergence" is more a slogan than anything. But as Google showed in its demos yesterday (flawed though they were by incongruous Bluetooth snafus), the interplay between mobile, online and TV is tantalizing. Seeing an Android smartphone act as a voice-activated GTV remote control is just the tip of the iceberg. Today we are in just the first inning of consumer expectations for how devices interact ("my contact list synchs to my iPhone - whoohoo!"), but increasingly, as the cloud gains more prominence, the consumer technology battle is going to gravitate to integrated 3-screen experiences.
In this respect, GTV must also be seen in the context of Google's epic battle with Apple. GTV is a rare instance of Google actually being ahead of Apple, rather than playing catch-up (as in smartphones, tablets, operating systems, etc.). For now at least, Apple doesn't have a TV of its own, giving Google an opportunity gain an early lead in how 3-screen experiences will work. GTV further exposes key weaknesses of Apple's tightly-controlled, vertically integrated model. While Apple has enjoyed a huge head-start with the iPhone and a smaller one with the iPad, developers are increasingly going to ask themselves whether developing for essentially one company (and to its particular, exacting demands) is better than returning their roots and comfort zone of developing for the open Internet and GTV. As I mentioned last week, Apple vs. Android is looking increasingly like Apple vs. Wintel, and we know how that story ended. While Apple is busy ranting against Flash, Google has been presented with a monster-sized PR opportunity for Android to be positioned as the open, neutral alternative.
5. It's Evolutionary, Not Revolutionary
Possibly the most remarkable thing about GTV is that rather than trying to disrupt the TV ecosystem, Google pragmatically incorporates it and tries to enhance its value. That Google chose to go this route rather than doing something revolutionary that would incent "cord-cutting" is almost miraculous given the company's nearly dogmatic approach to re-inventing everything it touches. While the cable/satellite/telco set-top box sitting alongside GTV may seem like a ridiculous hack to many, serving little purpose but to preserve the entrenched cable business model, for Google, this "friend, not foe" approach means genuine partnership discussions can ensue for Google with Multichannel Video Programming Distributors (MVPDs). That's key to GTV not relying on a risky, retail-only distribution model.
In my initial post on Google TV 2 months ago, I highlighted the fascinating negotiating dynamic about to unfold between Google and the MVPDs. Some will be frightened of Google and its potential Trojan horse incursion into the living room, while others will be compelled by the upside. One thing is for sure: yesterday's news that DISH's set-top box will be optimized for GTV means that GTV's new features are poised to become key messages in DISH's advertising. If you're an MVPD and you don't have an "Internet-on-TV" story you're going to be at a disadvantage. GTV adds value to MVPDs by enhancing both the TV experience and also driving more need for bandwidth on the ISP side. For all of these reasons, I think it's going to be very tempting for many MVPDs to engage with Google.
OK, so those are my arguments why GTV looks like a winner. The main caveats to my enthusiasm are GTV's pricing and seeing GTV actually work (initially with the Logitech box and Sony products). These aren't trivial. If Logitech prices its companion box at $499, then despite the above arguments, GTV will be too expensive and not take off. But say it comes in at $249? Imagine a consumer contemplating buying it (with no monthly fee!) or an iPad, which is $500-800 (plus a $30 monthly fee!). GTV is a hand-down winner in that scenario.
There's a lot to be excited about with GTV, as a whole new chapter in online video's rise is set to begin.
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