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Google Acquisition Could Reinvigorate its TV Plans

SageTV’s technology could improve the Google TV interface and let users watch shows on any device.

More than a year after Google first demonstrated Google TV, it remains stalled in its effort to reinvent television for the Internet age.

Now the company has gotten outside help to revive Google TV’s fortunes. On June 18, it announced the purchase of SageTV, a nine-year-old maker of software that turns a personal computer with a TV tuner card into a media center capable of recording, pausing, and streaming shows to various devices around the house. Neither company has announced specific plans, but SageTV’s media-management software potentially offers a number of ways to improve Google TV.

Google TV was intended to make it easy for people to search for and watch Web videos and other content, as well as TV shows, on their big-screen sets. The software debuted last October in a Sony television and Blu-ray player and a Logitech add-on box, but those devices have sold poorly owing to their $250-and-up prices and to limits broadcasters have placed on what shows users can watch. Earlier this year, Google scaled back plans to expand distribution.

SageTV’s technology could give Google TV the capabilities of a digital video recorder, which might make it more compelling as a product—especially one that already costs upwards of $250 It could also add the “placeshifting” features of products such as Sling Media’s Slingbox, allowing the user to watch live and recorded TV and video either at home or elsewhere on a PC or smart phone.

It’s unlikely, however, that either of these new capabilities will be added to Google TV in the short term—mainly because SageTV’s device with local storage seems at odds with Google’s ambitions to move all media and computing services to the cloud. “The direction they’ll take Google TV is more Netflix-on-demand than TiVo,” says Rakesh Agrawal, cofounder and CEO of SnapStream, a onetime SageTV rival that now sells TV-search devices and services to government agencies, schools, and TV production companies. But Agrawal thinks the SageTV team could help Google develop software that would let many more kinds of devices run Google TV.

More than anything, Google is mostly interested in SageTV’s talent pool. SageTV has been widely praised for its clean user interface, while Google TV was slammed for its clunky look and feel—so the company seems to have precisely the kind of expertise Google needs. “Google is getting more experienced people in the TV industry,” says former Sling Media executive Jeremy Toeman, founder and managing partner of the strategic marketing firm Stage Two Consulting.

Google is already working on other ways to make its TV software more compelling. It recently promised that Google TV devices will be upgraded to the latest Android operating system later this summer. One result will be a sleeker user interface, says Mario Queiroz, vice president of product management at Google and head of Google TV.

More important, the company will soon open up its Android Market, which now offers thousands of apps for smart phones and tablets, to Google TV devices. Software developers will be able to create new kinds of uses and services for the TV, from online social games to apps that turn smart phones and tablets into remote controls. “It’s a third wave” of applications, says Queiroz. Google hopes this will finally propel Google TV into exciting new realms.

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