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A View from Robert D. Hof

Rescheduling Google TV May Be a Smart Move

Google needs to make some refinements to its TV software.

  • December 21, 2010

After a series of mostly poor reviews, new Google TV products that had been planned for a launch at the important Consumer Electronics Show in early January have been delayed.

According to The New York Times, Samsung and Vizio will show their Google TV products, but Toshiba, Sharp, and LG Electronics have, at Google’s behest, delayed plans to introduce their own. To date, only Sony, with a line of Google TVs and Blu-ray player, and Logitech, with an add-on Google TV settop box, have released products with the software embedded in it.

Google TV lets people reach websites and video on their TVs, even while regular TV is playing. Some reviews have praised Google TV’s ambition, but many have said it falls too far short of what TV viewers want in their living rooms. Today, they’re mostly right–and their criticisms show how much Google still has to do to be successful in the world’s largest mass medium.

The Logitech box, called the Revue, comes with a PC keyboard that can be awkward to use from the couch. Logitech offers a smaller controller for an additional “mini-controller” for a steep $130, and Sony also offers a smaller remote control with its line of Google TVs. But both look more like model-airplane controllers than TV remotes. What’s more, the software’s user interface isn’t as intuitive as it should be; for instance, the search button is tucked next to the space bar and bears a somewhat less-than-obvious magnifying glass.

Worse, TV broadcasters, fearful that too many people might prefer to watch episodes on-demand via their websites where they’re exposed to less lucrative advertising, have blocked Google TV users from viewing most of their Web videos. Add the relatively steep price for Google TV products, which starts at $300 for the Revue, and it’s tough to see how these products would fly off the retail shelves.

Even so, it’s too early to count Google TV as another of Google’s many failed product experiments. For one thing, few people even inside the Googleplex expected the first-generation Google TV products to be runaway hits. Privately, people close to Google and its partners will admit that $300 and up is too pricey for most consumers but was necessary to provide the processing power needed to make the video and other elements work smoothly. But thanks to Moore’s Law, that price tag should come down fairly quickly.

It’s also important to understand that Google TV isn’t just a product. It’s a platform for next-generation television. As such, not every product has to be successful for the platform to be successful. Despite the latest delays, more products are coming, and they’ll be cheaper, more varied in form factor, and will sport better interfaces. And, as Google opens up Android Market to TV apps next year, developers–including those who know TV, such as the networks–will come out with more sofa spud-friendly apps that will make today’s Google TV look like the beta products they essentially are.

And while Google TV has been criticized for being too geeky, it’s not as complex as some superficial reviews make it out to be. After using Google TV for a couple of months now, I’m a little surprised how easy it is to find entertaining video on YouTube, quickly look up that actor you didn’t quite recognize on IMDB.com, or listen to Pandora. What’s more, despite the popular image of couch potatoes, almost everyone knows how to surf the Web these days, and that’s not easy with anything but a keyboard so far. Even that could change, as Google has just introduced an app that lets you use an Android mobile phones as a remote. That should make Google TV more appealing.

All that said, Google has to make a number of changes if Google TV is going to appeal to more consumers. For one, it needs to get the price down. Add-on Google TV products, which are the key to short-term success because most people already have HDTVs that work perfectly well, must come down to the sub-$100 range fairly quickly. Otherwise, it’s too easy for consumers to buy a $60 Roku, which runs Netflix and other video services perfectly well, or a $99 Apple TV.

Google also needs to give consumers more of a reason to crave Google TV, and that means cool stuff to do with it. Videoconferencing from the couch, available with a $150 video camera from Logitech, could be one, but not if it costs that much. A more likely avenue to greater mass appeal is to open up Android Market to TV apps ASAP. Google hasn’t given a specific date beyond “by the middle of 2011,” which sounds like it might be thinking of it for its Google I/O developer conference in late May–exactly one year after the company introduced plans for Google TV. Sooner would be better.

Google also must get more TV executives on board, which won’t be an easy task. Broadcast network executives, such as CBS CEO Leslie Moonves, have hinted recently that Google will have to pay for TV episodes it wants access to on Google TV. Google seems unlikely to do that, instead hoping to convince networks that it’s a valuable addition to television, not a cord-cutting enabler like settop boxes from Boxee, Roku, and others. To do that, Google will need to open the kimono on its advertising plans, which executives say it hasn’t done so far.

With only Dish Network on board as a pay-TV partner, Google also badly needs to persuade a major cable company to use its software in a settop box. That’s not as farfetched as it may seem, despite companies such as Comcast testing their own Internet-TV services. Delivering Internet content on the TV is no easy task, and it might benefit pay-TV companies to offload the task to tech companies such as Google that arguably could do it better and faster.

Most of all, if it wants to put its imprimatur on consumer electronics products, Google needs to adjust its method of releasing products before they’re fully baked. As hard as the Google TV team worked on this project, it’s clear that people expect more polished products when it comes to consumer electronics. For that matter, so do the consumer electronics manufacturers Google must persuade to use its software.

Clearly, Google is not going to give up on Google TV anytime soon. The Web is coming to television in a bigger way, now that Netflix and Amazon Video on Demand have proved that viewers want, and will pay for, new ways to watch video. Google knows it must be a player in the living room if it’s to keep growing its online advertising business.

As discouraging as the retreat from CES looks for Google TV, it may be a good idea for Google to hold off on promoting it so publicly until it has more of the kinks worked out. With so many rivals going for the same market, Google TV will get only a couple more chances to prove it’s ready for prime time.

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