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Needed: Apps for Google TV

After tepid reviews for the first Google TV products, Google’s hoping a flood of apps will generate excitement for the platform.

The first few products featuring Google’s TV software have received lukewarm reviews, and the first downloadable apps for the platform are months away. So Google is trying to persuade Web developers to create the first wave of interactive content for the platform by making web pages and in-browser “web apps” to ignite enthusiasm for the “TV meets Web” project.

Play TV: A web app made by Gamestring allows 3D games to be played on Google TV.

Ambarish Kenghe, a Google TV product manager, says his team recently gave away 10,000 Google TV devices to Web developers in the United States to encourage them to develop for the platform.

Google TV is an operating system for TV devices that makes it possible to view both web content and regular broadcasts through one interface. The first products with it built in launched last month, including TV sets and Blu-Ray players from Sony, and a set-top box from Logitech. Those devices can run “native,” or installable, apps that offer complex functionality because Google TV is a variant of the Android operating system for smartphones. But the Android app market won’t come to the platform until spring or summer 2011, Kenghe says.

Until then only websites and web apps—applications that run in the browser—can bring extra video and music content, and even games, to compatible devices.

“Google TV needs great content to be a success,” says Daren Tsui, CEO and cofounder of mSpot, a company that provides a service that lets users upload music to the Web and then stream it from a smart phone or any device with a Web browser.

Google approached mSpot two months ago and asked the company to develop a Web app of its service for Google TV. The resulting app, which launched this week, will let users stream music and movies to a Google TV device, adding to the content already available via Google TV. That content includes movies and TV shows from services like Amazon Video On Demand and Netflix. “At the end of the day, people are really buying the content as much as the box,” Tsui says.

Kenghe says using a Web app on Google TV is closer to using a native app than it is to browsing a website. “The experience really makes use of the whole TV screen—there’s no URL bar at the top or anything as you would see on a computer, and you can make full use of Flash for interactivity.”

Remote control Gamestring performs the computations needed for sophisticated 3D graphics on its own servers.

Users can also add Web apps to the main menu of the Google TV interface, Kenghe notes. He cites a Web app from the publisher Meegenius, a company that makes interactive books for children, as proof that TV Web apps can be powerful and attractive. Meegenius has built Google-TV-ready apps that are nearly identical to its iPad and iPhone apps, Kenghe says.

Google TV’s reliance on Web apps - at least until Android apps arrive next year - may, in fact, be a hint of the future for gadgets of all kinds, says Peter Yared of Webtrends, a company that helps firms build apps for various platforms.

“I think Web apps will win out over local apps for all devices,” says Yared, who has previously created TV apps for Yahoo’s Connected TV platform for CBS and other large companies. “Instead of having to maintain different native apps on separate platforms, you can build an HTML5 page that can be more easily tweaked to look and work great on the browsers of different devices.”

Most TV apps need to do little more than stream video, Yared points out, something easily achieved in a browser. By comparison, a phone app often needs more direct access to a device’s hardware more easily provided by an installed app, such as its GPS and accelerometer.

Christopher Boothroyd, CEO of startup Gamestring, says it’s possible to provide a slick gaming experience on Google TV via the Web browser. His firm has created a Web app to let Google TV users play advanced games, including World of Warcraft. The firm’s technology—dubbed Adrenaline—runs most of the game on distant Web servers and uses a webpage with the Flash plug-in to let users see and control the action (this video shows Gamestring running World of Warcraft and other games on Google TV).

Gamestring hopes to license its technology to other game developers, and is working with toy manufacturer Nukotoys to bring games built around its toys to Google TV. “We don’t quite make Google TV into a console, but the folks at Sony may be wondering why they released a device with the potential to compete with the PlayStation,” Boothroyd says, referring to the firm’s TV sets with Google TV built in.

Google TV also offers a way to bring genres of game that are hugely popular on smart phones and Facebook into the living room, he adds. “I think we’ll see that kind of social game become a little more gamelike, with true 3-D environments that you can drive your farm’s tractor around, for example,” Boothroyd says.

However, Yared of Webtrends says that, in the end, there is little evidence that apps of any kind are a good match with TV.

“I think that what people really want from their TV is streaming video content and maybe sports scores,” Yared says. “My experience in making TV apps makes me think there isn’t much of a market.”

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