By Nigel Walley – @nwalley
So Google have launched another TV product – the Nexus Player. In August 2011 we looked at the previous Google TV roll-out (See: Getting Under the Skin of Google TV) and concluded that ‘without a radical overhaul, and the kind of breakthrough market-redefinition that only Apple seem good at, Google TV feels like something ..not something designed for mass roll out’.
So has anything changed? We think so. In reality Google have actually launched three new products in recent months. These can be viewed as a three pronged re-entry into the TV market: Android TV the operating system, Google Chromecast the networking device, and now Google Nexus, the content and services play. Each has a role in the overall Google vision for TV that is different but complementary. We thought we would pick them apart and reflect on what Google are up to.
At top level, there is a broad recognition that TV is finally taking its place as just one of the wide array of devices and screens that have taken over our lives. As a result TV software is now a target for Google’s Android programme. For years, the TV software that was in set top boxes was highly secretive, proprietary, locked down and static. As a user, you didn’t know its name and you didn’t mess with it. While delivering a secure, high quality environment for IP owners to trust their precious content, STB software only had a tiny pool of developers and didn’t benefit from the frenetic, fast-moving world of web innovation. Set top boxes, and the functionality that they offered, didn’t change for years on end.
It has long been felt that the TV world would benefit from adopting one of the three operating system (OS) standards that have emerged – Android, Windows and iOS. In an even earlier post in 2010 we flagged up the benefits of sticking Android into a set top box (see What The Hell Is Google TV), but it has taken till 2014 for this idea to finally get into products to hit the market.
For a long time, screen manufacturers have wanted to develop their own OS, thinking it gave them strategic advantage and control of their users’ media habits. The reality was that this killed off their aspirations to take on Apple or Google in the content and services market. It was just too hard for third party developers to create apps for individual device operating systems on top of iOS, Android and Windows. There were a small number of Smart TVs that had GoogleTV in them (Sony had a significant strategic partnership with Google at one point). But these were confused products that had GoogleTV as a separate content and services app sitting on top of the core operating system – which remained proprietary. They weren’t Android TV.
Google are now making headway selling a version of Android 5.0 as an OS for both set top boxes and Smart TV screens. There have been a slew of announcements about both in the last few months, with even screen manufacturers like Sony, Sharp and Philips using Android in their new devices. For the manufacturers this gives them the ability to make TVs with a standardised, open operating system. It makes it easier to have TVs and mobile devices interact if they share an OS. For the content / app creators this finally delivers a less fragmented device landscape to develop for. For Google, it creates a new class of device that favours other android devices around the home.
The first of the ‘other devices’ that fall into the new android vision is Google Chromecast. There was some confusion when Google Chromecast launched, in particular its competitive status against AppleTV. As we pointed out at the time, Chromecast defined a new and very different product class, and was not comparable to AppleTV. The recent launch of Google Nexus, which IS an Apple TV competitor (see below) makes sense of that position.
At simplest Chromecast is a WiFi dongle for TV screens that don’t have internet or apps. It connects an old TV to the home network. This is the second generation of wireless dongle to be plugged into a TV. The first generation – simple HDMI wireless dongles – were necessary because the TV industry had bizarrely launched ‘Smart’ TV screens without built in wireless connectivity. If you wanted WiFi you had to plug in an extra dongle which cost £80. But they didn’t nothing clever beyond connecting the screen to broadband.
Chromecast goes way beyond that. It has no apps or content on the device itself, but has the ability to connect to, and co-opt, apps running on a phone or tablet. If you play Netflix on your mobile and try and transfer it to big screen, the Chromecast quickly downloads a slim Netflix player and takes over the connection directly. It means that any app on your mobile device, that has been tweaked to include ‘cast’ software, can suddenly become a TV app. The thing Chromecast does, which marks it out as better than Apple AirPlay, is that it takes over the connection and streams the content directly from the Internet to the TV, without having to route it via the mobile device as Apple does. This dramatically improves the video quality and frees up the mobile device to do other things while you watch. The mobile device just acts as a remote control.
This functionality is not wholly new. Even in the original Google TV there was the ability to connect to a tablet or a phone. A YouTube app playing on an Android phone could connect to the YouTube app in original GoogleTV and play the content on the TV screen. The vision was compelling but the implementation was clunky and only worked for YouTube. GoogleChromecast delivers on the original vision.
Its competitive set is limited. The new Microsoft TV dongle is similar and there are a variety of other brands making similar ‘casting’ dongles that haven’t captured the imagination quite like Chromecast. But the tech it uses for the clever linking between mobile device and screen isn’t a proprietary Android one or even a Google one. There are a small group of technologies that are trying to achieve similar interconnection between mobile devices and main screen devices (boxes and screens). These include the original Apple AirPlay; the ‘DIscovery and Launch’ protocol DIAL (promoted by Netflix and YouTube) and the more generally used standard called Miracast which is built into all new Smart TV screens, most Windows 8 devices, the new Microsoft dongle and even Virgin Tivo.
There is a level of interoperability between these which means that, if you stand in any of the iBurbia Studio labs around the country and click on the ‘CAST’ icon (pictured) on an app on the house iPad, it will offer you 8 different devices that you can cast your movie onto (including all the Smart TVs, the Tivo and Chromecast). This behaviour (and underlying tech) has gone mainstream and will be a big enabler of the future connected home.
The more difficult question for Google is ‘who could and should exploit Chromecast’? in the short term, the broadcasters like the BBC have used it to increase the distribution options for their broadcast players like iPlayer. But there is no reason that a pay TV platform like Sky or Virgin can’t use it to connect an old TV in a bedroom to a new generation set top box in the lounge. The most interesting Chromecast applications may come from those very pay platforms whose lunch the OTT players are trying to take.
For Google, its great ‘headline’ success is being able to turn an old fashioned TV into a SmartTV and putting Google apps like YouTube onto millions of TVs it couldn’t have reached previously. Its more subtle success is in its favouring inter-connectivity with devices running Android. At a time of growing inter-connectivity in the home, Chromecast is a clever land grab by Google making it more likely that people will choose Android devices for home use. It has the potential to thrust their brand and their apps onto every TV screen in our lives, but the real challenge will be to move them up the value chain so that they are buying content and services from Google. That is where Nexus comes in.
The most recent of Google’s TV related product launches is Google Nexus. This device combines the use of the Android TV operating system, with the ‘cast’ technology available in Chromecast, but with the added extra of the content and services offered through Google Play and other apps. It is the true inheritor of the old GoogleTV position in the market and a direct competitor to AppleTV, Amazon Fire TV and Roku.
Nexus differs significantly from the old Google TV in that it doesn’t try to bring the whole internet onto a TV screen. It recognises something that the TV industry has been saying for years – that TV is different and most of the internet looks terrible on a TV screen. Nexus recognises this truth in same way that Apple TV, Roku and Amazon Fire had previously recognised it. They have created a device that only contains apps that play video – TV, movies and short-form.
Google Nexus has been generously described as a ‘set top box’. For many of us that description should be reserved only for devices that includes broadcast and an EPG. Nexus doesn’t have these and neither do its direct competitors AppleTV, AmazonFireTV and Roku. This whole product class has the feel of a developer group that expected broadcast to die. Rather inconveniently it hasn’t. In our 2010 review of Google TV we remarked that it ‘should recognise that the broadcast channel is still the primary navigational device’. The old Google TV made an attempt to include broadcast (via someone else’s STB) but this new one cuts it out all together. This means that, apart from in the small number of homes who have given up broadcast completely, these products are mere peripherals.
There is a solution to this but the manufacturers of all these products are hampered by their focus on the needs of the US market. If you were to design one of these devices specifically for the UK market the obvious solution would be to make a Freeview version. A Freeview compatible Google Nexus or Apple TV box with some PVR memory linked to your iCloud account would fly off the shelves.
Unfortunately it would make no sense in the US, where free to air channels are few and under-powered, so it won’t happen. What you therefore end up with with this product category is a sub-optimal outcome for the European market. For most customers, it will be easier to get a YouView box if you want this functionality.
Google Big Picture
As we said at the beginning, TV is finally being treated as part of the wider screen-based product group. The Android strategy that Google have pursued in the other devices is finally being extended to TV. This is crucial as our homes become increasingly inter-connected. It is not unreasonable now to think of homes making an OS decision that affects every device in the house. If Google can pursue a strategy that puts its OS and favoured apps at the front and centre, it is a big market to pitch for. Having both Android TV and GoogleChromecast gives them the tools to dominate our device choices and our home media networks. However, it is a market strangely devoid of revenues beyond software licences with the manufacturers and YouTube advertising.
The more difficult question is whether Google can leverage the device and OS dominance to sell content and functionality based services through them. Whatever the drum beats about cord-cutting tell us, the pay platforms around the world have managed to maintain their dominance in the face of competition first from the Smart TV manufacturers, and then from the OTT players like Netflix. The current Google products look likely to dominate the device world but are not sufficiently compelling to concern the content and services world. A likely outcome will be homes with new TV screens running Android, and old screens running Chromecast, but using them to run the apps from pay platforms (like Sky) or OTT apps like Netflix. As always, we are happy to be proved wrong.
Nigel Walley – @nwalley
Note: On November 13th there is a Decipher open evening and drinks at iBurbia Studios Chiswick, giving industry observers a chance to engage with the latest media technology. For info please email: firstname.lastname@example.org