David Zax

A View from David Zax

Google TV Reboots

Google TV is revamping its software, but doesn’t plan to put out new hardware until next year.

  • November 1, 2011

A software update comes to Google TV, the internet-connected TV experience from the search giant. Google will be rolling out the update to Sony devices this week, and to Logitech devices “soon thereafter,” according to Google’s official blog post on the matter. There are no plans for a hardware refresh before the holiday season.

A quick primer: What exactly is Google TV? First announced in May of 2010, Google TV is a software platform that integrates with your existing cable/satellite setup, adding a search feature that makes it easy to find content from your cable provider and from the Internet alike. It uses the Android operating system, and it competes with other set-top boxes like Apple TV and Roku. The service, which officially launched about a year ago, is built into certain TVs, or you can get it by doling out $100 for a specific box from Sony or Logitech.

By Google’s own admission, the first iteration of Google TV “wasn’t perfect.” In an attempt to fix that, Google has focused on four areas in the new software update. It has greatly simplified the interface, making it similar to Android phones or tablets in some respects. It has improved its search capabilities, and has added an app that lets you browse through 80,000 movies and TV episodes. It has begun to bring apps to Google TV (though what will it do to stave off app fragmentation, I wonder?). And it has improved the YouTube experience on Google TV.

That last maneuver is the most interesting one. If you’re anything like me, the experience of watching YouTube is about as different from the experience of watching cable as reading the newspaper is from listening to a symphony. The analogy is imprecise, but my point is this: YouTube doesn’t even feel like television, to most of its users. We go to YouTube to watch videosthose kooky cats!–while we turn on the television to watch shows.

No more, if Google has its way. YouTube has steadily and stealthily been transforming itself into more of a “leanback experience,” like traditional TV. They even have a URL reservered for the purpose: youtube.com/leanback; indeed, it’s a project they’ve been working on since July of 2010.

YouTube also recently confirmed that they were partnering with programmers to launch YouTube channels featuring what PaidContent calls “thousands of hours of exclusive premium content”; these YouTube channels will premiere this month. YouTube even has ways of stringing those cat videos and other traditional YouTube favorites into “channels” of sorts: “we’ve integrated YouTube more closely with Google TV search, so that you can turn virtually any topic - mountain biking, cooking, etc. - into a channel,” according to the company’s post.

Google TV launched to mixed reviews, with the Wall Street Journal calling it high-potential but “a bit of a tease,” and with the Times saying “This much is clear: Google TV may be interesting to technophiles, but it’s not for average people.” Will the software update be enough to nudge it into a more fully satisfying experience, and make it appealing to those “average people”?

More to the point: even if Google finally has hacked it, greatly improving their product, will it catch on? “Until Google TV appears as a native application on the living-room television, it’s not going to be relevant to most people,” analyst Michael Pachter recently told MarketWatch. “Netflix won the living room by being native on Blu-ray players and game consoles, and when Google TV does the same, people will begin to care.”

The real key for Google TV adoption to take off may be in hardware, not software–the very issue that Google says it’s not tackling right now. For people to fall in love with Google TV, it may have to find its way into the devices that people already own, or that they were going to by anyway.

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