We’re going to have to wait quite a while before we see it arrive in Australia, but Google TV is an excellent idea that deserves to do well. Here’s why you should care about it (and what might go wrong before it realises its potential).
Although some of the news had (inevitably) leaked ahead of time, Google TV made its official debut at last week’s Google I/O developer conference in San Francisco — the same event that saw Android 2.2 make its debut and Google Wave opened up to the mass market. Even with those developments, it was pretty clear that the audience (me included) were more excited about the possibility of Google TV than almost anything else that happened.
Essentially, the idea of Google TV is that it uses the simplicity of Google’s main search interface as a means to bring Internet access to your TV, and using that access to make it easier to find video content. That content could come from anywhere — your existing free-to-air and pay networks, YouTube, your personal video recorder, online TV catchup services, or paid movie download services — but will be presented on what’s almost certainly the biggest screen in your house.
So if you search on ‘Packed To The Rafters’, Google TV will show you upcoming episodes on channels connected to your TV, any episodes you have stored on your PVR, links to catch-up episodes on Plus7, and sites with information about the show. You can also schedule recordings of upcoming episodes. The prototype interface Google demonstrated is designed for use on a large screen, with bigger fonts and fewer configuration options.
Achieving all that requires the Google TV platform be built into hardware (a TV set, set-top box, PVR or DVD/Blu-ray player). The platform will be released as open source code in mid-2011, but until then will only be offered via selected manufacturers, with Sony and Logitech the first to sign up. While you have to buy hardware and need a decent broadband Internet connection, there’s no subscription charge for the service itself.
It’s certainly true that there have been plenty of attempts at this kind of thing in the past, stretching back to WebTV in the mid-1990s and moving onwards to modern media centre PCs and the current range of Internet-enabled TVs. As a result, quite a lot of people have been dismissive of the concept. This comment from Lifehacker reader Vincent is pretty typical:
Looks just like XBMC / Boxee. I don’t know what the difference is.
The short answer to that would be: integration and the resultant simplicity. The concept for Google TV suggests that all forms of (legal) content are treated equally, and users don’t have to go through a complex setup process. There’s no doubt that (for example) XBMC is a powerful platform, but the huge amount of configuration needed is going to put off many non-geek types (which is, let’s face it, the majority of the television audience).
There have also been suggestions that Google TV is just an attempt to clone Apple TV, which is to my mind even wider of the mark, as Apple TV doesn’t offer any integration with network TV services, and restricts its paid media options to those offered via the iTunes store. It’s also been one of Apple’s less successful products in recent years, suggesting that Apple hasn’t yet translated its general mastery of mass-market user interfaces to the TV space.
And that’s what’s essentially appealing about Google TV: an interface that’s not hard to explain to your non-tech family and friends. Searching via keywords has become second nature to most of us — so much so that many people apparently don’t realise there’s any other way of navigating the web. Allowing people to search via title, across a wide range of sources and timeframes, is a much better approach than most existing systems.
What’s the downside? Well, the first and most obvious one is that (like virtually every other network-connected TV system in recent years), it will be a long while before we see it arrive in Australia. Historically, local networks have been very resistant to participating in anything they don’t completely control, and Google TV might not be any different. On that level, the release of the source code in mid-2011 will be an important step; by then we’ll know whether Google TV has been as big a game changer as Gmail or as irrelevant a waste of Google’s time as Knol.
Given that no product has yet hit the market, we also need to see how well Google TV works in practice, and what limitations are in place. Google’s motivation in developing the product is clearly to have yet another platform to deliver advertising. Ahead of time, there’s no telling how intrusive that might be.
The other stand-out issuue is that there’s no obvious support for content that you’ve downloaded from (ahem) Channel BT. That’s good from a “keeping content legal” perspective, but is likely to dissuade those Australians already addicted to download TV. Conventional consumer electronics wisdom also holds that no-one wants a keyboard in their lounge room, which is another potential dampener for the product.
There’s nothing that Google TV does that can’t already be achieved on your existing big screen if you have sufficient nous and patience. However, the vast majority of people don’t want to think that hard about their TV watching experience. That’s a huge market no-one has effectively tapped, and Google TV seems to have as a good a chance as any of its rivals.
Lifehacker’s weekly Streaming column looks at how technology is keeping us entertained.