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Google TV Faces Some Prime-Time Challenges

Content providers may be reluctant to work with Google.

Having conquered much of the Internet, it seems only logical for Google to try to take over television, too. But the Google TV platform unveiled at the firm’s annual I/O developers’ conference in San Francisco yesterday could face many problems.

Google vision: Sony’s CEO Howard Stringer shows off a television running Google TV during the I/O conference in San Francisco.

The goal of the platform, said senior product manager Rishi Chandra, is to offer the “best of what TV has to offer today, and the best of what the Web has to offer today.” However, closer analysis of what is known about Google TV so far suggests that the firm has some work to do if its new platform is to live up to that promise.

Google TV consists of a modified version of the open-source Android mobile phone operating system. It’s designed to run on Internet-connected set-top boxes and high-definition televisions. The platform was developed in collaboration with Sony, Logitech, and chipmaker Intel, which is supplying relatively powerful Atom processors–chips already used in some laptop computers–for Google TV hardware. The hardware announced so far consists of two kinds of devices: Sony televisions and a set-top box made by Logitech. Both will be available in Best Buy stores in the fall.

Google TV users will be able to search for video by typing on a wireless keyboard, or speaking into a connected Android mobile phone. Results could include live TV broadcasts, places to view the show online like Netflix or Amazon, or future broadcasts to be set to record on DVR. Google TV devices will also run the Chrome browser and will be able to play Flash video from across the Web.

One problem for Google TV, however, will be integration with other TV equipment. It will be easy to make the most of Google TV if you’re a subscriber to pay-TV satellite provider Dish Network. This company has partnered with Google to make a custom Internet protocol to control its satellite box and DVR equipment–a single click will take you from a search result to a live broadcast, or set the DVR to record.

“I went to see the Logitech demo, and with the Dish Network, the experience is very smooth,” says Colin Dixon, an analyst at TDG Research. “With a different provider, some of the value is going to be lost.” Without the new type of link developed for a Dish box, the integration with other hardware won’t be quite so slick. The Logitech box will relay commands to other devices via an infrared repeater.

The new platform is open so any other TV provider could design their equipment to connect with Google TV. But the biggest problem Google faces with trying to deliver a great TV experience is getting content providers on its side, says Jonathan Taplin, a consultant on digital media economics and director of the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California. He points out that Dish Network is a relatively small provider that doesn’t have access to all the premium content of the big cable firms like Comcast. “I’m sure they wanted to have someone else behind besides Dish star on that podium yesterday,” he says.

Unfortunately for Google, cable companies may not be keen to make their subscription services compatible with Google TV, for fear of handing over valuable information about their customers. These companies have tried to evade attempts by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to make cable boxes more open. Likewise, content providers have resisted efforts to connect televisions to their online services. Google admitted yesterday that it will be possible for video sites run by content providers, like Hulu, to block access to Google TV users. “They really have to get onside with some of the major content providers,” agrees Dixon.

As for delivering the best of the Web, Google is again reliant on others. Speaking at a press briefing after the launch, Chandra said it was surprising how many sites translated to a bigger screen without problems, but admitted that Web developers would need to design custom pages to give Google TV users the best experience.

“I think you’ll see the same thing happen that we did with mobile–as content providers see that new traffic, they’re going to do something about it,” Chandra said. Google has already launched a set of tools to help developers create Web pages designed for its TV platform.

Google is also appealing to developers of Android cell phone apps to help create new functionality for the platform. Google TV devices will run preexisting cell phone apps that are not reliant on phone features, as well as those designed for the platform. The company introduced one example at the launch. It runs closed captions from a broadcast through Google’s translate Web service to create live captions in any language.

Dixon says that the power of the Google TV devices, which boast a 1.2 gigahertz processor typically used in small laptops, will allow developers to create new experiences for viewers. Apps that encourage socializing around TV content are just one example. Such apps–which can be paid for–may also provide a way for content providers to dip their toes into the new platform, for example by developing apps for the new platform that allow content to be pulled in over the web, says Dixon. He predicts such apps would be popular with viewers, and could ultimately encourage content owners to embrace the platform: “If those guys start to deliver Android apps, then, boy, are we going to see things change.”

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