Google have now announced that they are to move into the Internet TV market with a platform named “Google TV”. This will aim to bring the world of web content to your TV screen in an easy to use way making video podcasts as easy to find and watch as regular TV programmes. It will not be a single product, but will be available in various products from set top boxes to televisions with the functionality built in. The announcement also came with the news that Google is working with big name partners such as Sony, Intel, Logitech and Adobe to make the product a reality. Engadget has a pretty good round up of the news in its article: Google TV: Everything you ever wanted to know. I believe that this is a very significant announcement and here is why.
So why have Google gone into TV? It didn't take them long to indicate the reason at the launch. Their spokesman Rishi Chandra, Senior Product Manager for Google Apps stated that there are four billion TV viewers worldwide and an amazing $70 Billion (USD) is spent on TV advertising. Google makes most of its money from advertising, so being able to tap in to even a little of that revenue must be a very attractive idea for them. I think also that for web content producers this is a chance to get their podcasts and programming onto the biggest screen in the house which will increase their attractiveness to advertisers and sponsors, so who knows, maybe they will spend more money on promotion with Google. It might also offer them the opportunity for new revenue streams, after all people are used to paying for content on TV, through subscriptions, taxes (such as TV licences) and even renting DVDs.
Engadget commented that the idea of bringing the web to TV is “a lofty goal that many have failed to accomplish” and I have read and heard various other comments claiming that products in this area from Microsoft's Web TV onwards have somehow “failed” because they have not “revolutionised” the public's viewing habits. I can't help noticing the increasing frequency that claims are made of products being “revolutionary” and I think this has crept into this space too. There are very few revolutionary tech products on the market today. Most of them are an incremental improvement over previous products, what can happen though is this incremental improvement pushes them into being something that suddenly sells well. Therefore I tend to see all of these attempts as parts of a journey, not a failure.
Television is evolutionary, change is sometimes slow. Back in the days when you could count the number of television channels we had on one hand it was not logical to describe Digital TV with its many channels, as a failure, it was simply an era that hadn't arrived for most people. I believe it is the same with Internet on TV. In the Google TV keynote Google CEO Eric Schmidt made the comment “It's much harder to marry a fifty year old technology and a brand new technology than those of us from the brand new technology area thought”. In many parts of the world (including the UK) there are significant barriers to Internet on TV adoption, the most notable being slow broadband. As faster broadband becomes available these barriers will become less significant.
So what will be needed to make Google TV a success? There are a few factors, first it has to make people's lives easier, secondly, be easy for people to obtain and thirdly, in its early stages be economical for developers to engage with it.
At the heart of the platform is a search box, no great surprise there with it being from Google! Actually I think this is a great idea, and one that could really help smaller content producers get their webcasts noticed. The search box is probably one of the most transformational ideas in the history of the web. Instead of wading through vast directories of websites people can find the resources they need by just entering a few keywords. It is an idea that is simple enough for virtually anybody to grasp and has changed the way people find content. In fact for my blog and I suspect many other websites, a large proportion of traffic originates from Google search itself. This is an approach that has been able to scale to the number of websites available, sure, the search algorithms have to be improved to provide the right results, but the idea of typing keywords in a search box can pretty much cope as a concept with any number of websites.
Compare this to the Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) found on many digital TV solutions today. The strains around this idea are becoming all too apparent. For a start they favour TV channels rather than video on demand, so if you have a box capable of presenting both then you need to switch between places to find the programming you want. An example of this is on the Freesat box that I have which is a satellite TV receiver and can play programmes form the BBC iPlayer, a video on demand solution. The guides to show you what is available from these two sources are in two completely different places, but why? It is the same person wanting to watch content on the same TV set.
Another major problem with EPGs is channel numbering. If you want your TV channel to succeed you need a channel number towards the lower range of the EPG. In the UK the regulatory body Ofcom demands that “prominence” should be given to “public service channels” in an EPG, these channels are established large TV stations, mostly state owned. Going up the channel numbers in a UK EPG takes the viewer to worse and worse places, strange religious channels, obscure shopping channels and all night roulette. Added to that is the problem that EPGs with a large number of channels can be unwieldy to navigate, in fact some devices get round this problem by providing a search box and some people get round it by buying a TV guide! Is the EPG the equivalent of a web directory?
Once a viewer has found a program this may be able to deepen their relationship with that brand through the installation of an Android app, this might make it easier to keep an audience. This isn't a new idea, broadcasters have been doing this on the web, a good example is the BBC's “Ashes to Ashes” site which contains the sort of extras you might find on a DVD such as interviews with writers and the cast and photographs. On an Internet TV platform all of this can be done in one place.
An interesting question on ease of use is how the platform could support passive viewing. Broadcast TV is great at that, you can just switch between the channels until you find something you like. No need to think in advance what you want. Here is where the YouTube Leanback demonstration caught my eye. It starts playing what Google describe as a “channel of you” automatically, a personalised video feed. An interesting solution, could this be developed further?
Related to ease of use is the ease of obtaining the technology. No solution is easier than accidentally obtaining technology! The decision to work with Sony and offer it built into TVs could be significant, it becomes something that is there anyway, just another feature of a shiny new TV set that people “might as well” use. The system will also be available in the form of a set top box, so people won't have to upgrade their TVs, this also gives it a cheaper access point, and lack of expense could really help adoption. Here perception of the products will be all important. If it is seen as too technical people will be put off but if they see their friends and neighbours enjoying web content on their TVs with a minimum of fuss and effort they just might be tempted. After all, many are already using items such as games consoles to view Internet TV, so the idea isn't as new as some might think to the general public.
In my view the full potential of Internet on TV is yet to be discovered and this is where developers come in. Third part applications for the platform could extend it in new and exciting ways, just as we have seen with Boxee applications. Developers always face a problem with new products such as this though. Learning a new skill is time and resource consuming, and it is natural for developers to want to maximise their return on this investment. Something I like about developing Boxee applications is being able to use existing skills such as Python programming and XML and apply them to a new area. The actual learning curve is not that steep (apart from learning how to design applications for the ten foot experience). Google have maintained this logic, firstly, they are encouraging developers to make versions of their websites that are optimised for televisions, in a similar way to how mobile versions of websites are produced today. They have even come up with guidelines to help and these can be found at: http://www.google.com/tv/developer/. Secondly, apps on the platform are just Android apps, so developers can use the same skillset to produce apps for TV or maybe even use the same apps. This is a significant move as it will reduce the costs associated with supporting the platform, and could make it much more tempting for content providers to join in, especially in the early days. More apps might just help drive sales. Oh, and did I mention games?
Finally, there has been talk in the coverage of Google TV of this being really bad news for platforms such as Boxee. On the face of it this could be true, but actually it could be good news. AT the heart of it lies an assumption I think that the Internet TV platform market is like some sort of pie, the more Google eat the less is left for others. I don't think this is true. If Google TV starts selling well more people will become aware of Internet TV and so the market could expand. A bigger market means more opportunities and maybe not everybody will want Google TV and may look for other solutions. Even if Google does dominate the space, having a relatively open Internet TV platform out there that is popular means lots of opportunities for third parties. In fact Boxee have said that they are going to build an Android version of their product, and maybe others will follow. I did notice that Google TV doesn't seem to have much of a social element, something Boxee utilises well to aid content discovery.
It is far too early of course to say what the impact of this platform will be or what its chances of success are. It is a significant announcement though and having the Google name behind it could help tremendously, particularly as people are used to the name on the web and on many mobile phones. It raises some questions too, how will it affect country specific alternatives such as Project Canvas? How will it transform the idea of broadcasting? How will the ideas of “minorities programming” and “public service broadcasting” have to change in the era of the web? What new programming will it enable? How will producers and developers maximise the opportunities that the platform brings?
It's an exciting time for TV.