Since a report appeared in The Verge over the weekend about a new Google initiative called "Android TV" I've been puzzling over the question of whether the world (or even Google) really needs this device. Ordinarily I'm all for innovation, but the (admittedly preliminary) description of Android TV, makes it awfully hard to understand Google's bet here, especially as the momentum and adulation for Chromecast keep growing.
No doubt, Google's primary motivator is to gain the upper hand in the biggest gold rush since the advent of the Internet itself: ownership of the digital living room. Broadband's presence in the living room is getting stronger each day, putting everything up for grabs: how viewers will interact with programming and TVs, where their finite subscription dollars will be allocated, how advertising will work and importantly, which devices will control the experience. With tens of billions of dollars already sloshing through the living room, it's a massive market opportunity that appeals to giant companies as well as startups.
Google's first digital living room foray, Google TV, was a spectacular failure, primarily because the company's over-reaching ambition collided with a cautious content industry and a nascent market need. Conversely, Chromecast, Google's second attempt, has been a spectacular success, primarily because it took the opposite approach, making the device as simple as possible, with a low price to match.
Google now seems to have been bitten by the simplicity bug, as Android TV's main differentiators are intended to be improved, more straightforward search and recommendations, plus a streamlined UI using standard templates.
Better search and recommendations are a holy grail, but delivering them has proven especially difficult for those who have tried. The bar for Android TV would be even higher, because as long as content remains balkanized it would require searching and recommending across OTT services to make it complete. Google would need a lot of cooperation from OTT services to obtain accurate and current metadata, availability and pricing information.
Oddly, this is the same concept (using voice) that Amazon promoted with its new Fire TV. But as hands-on reviews already reveal, search results primarily center on Amazon's own catalog, making it a very incomplete experience. If Android TV primarily showed Google content, this would be a quick turnoff. Expect OTT providers to be cautious about opening up their data to Google, fearful of giving the company too much insight and also reducing their competitive edge.
It's not just OTT content Android TV would have to scour to be complete, it's also pay-TV's linear line-ups and VOD catalogs, which are growing all the time. Getting necessary access, serving it by appropriate geography and by the subscriber's level of service is a real hairball. Pretty quickly Android TV will risk feeling a lot like Google TV.
Meanwhile, the over-arching question that Chromecast raised is whether the TV is even the right device on which to do complex content searches, or whether this is better left to robust and increasingly popular mobile devices? To me, this was one of the winning propositions about Chromecast - how it leveraged existing behaviors - rather than forcing new ones. Importantly, Chromecast also limited how much developer resources were required, a key reason why so more and more sites are supporting Chromecast.
With Android TV, the smart folks at Google seem to be ready to ignore much of this in their pursuit of the living room. Simplicity is a terrific ambition, but if you're going to make that your goal, you better be able to deliver, otherwise failure and derision await. Google hit a simplicity home run with Chromecast, but it looks like it would be much harder to repeat with Android TV.
If I were advising Google, I'd suggest doubling down on Chromecast and building on its success. But the allure of the living room is so strong that it appears Google is going to muddy the waters and give Android TV a shot anyway.
What do you think? Can Google pull off Android TV or is it another Google TV flop in the making?