Google made some waves yesterday when it announced the new Google TV platform, backed by major players like Sony, Logitech, Intel, Dish Network, and Best Buy. Built on Android and featuring the Chrome browser with a full version of Flash Player 10.1, Google TV is supposed to bring "the web to your TV and your TV to the web," in Google's words. It's a lofty goal that many have failed to accomplish, but Google certainly has the money and muscle to pull it off. But hold up: what is Google TV, exactly, and why do all these companies think it's going to revolutionize the way we watch TV? Let's take a quick walk through the platform and see what's what.


The basic facts

Google TV isn't a single product -- it's a platform that will eventually run on many products, from TVs to Blu-ray players to set-top boxes. The platform is based on Android, but instead of the Android browser it runs Google's Chrome browser as well as a full version of Flash Player 10.1. That means Google TV devices can browse to almost any site on the web and play video -- Hulu included, provided it doesn't get blocked. It also means that Google TV devices can run almost all Android apps that don't require phone hardware. You'll still need to keep your existing cable or satellite box, however -- most Google TV devices won't actually have any facility for tuning TV at launch, instead relying on your existing gear plugged in over HDMI to do the job. There's a lot of potential for clunkiness with that kind of setup, so we'll have to see how it works in person.

All Google TV devices will have remotes with some form of QWERTY keyboard, and you'll be able to use Android phones as remotes as well. Using an Android phone opens up some extremely intriguing possibilities, like searching for content using Google Voice Search and navigating by gesture, but it's not clear how deep the integration between Android on Google TV and Android on phones will be at launch.


Partners

Google's not going into the living room alone -- the company's launching Google TV with an impressive array of partners, each of whom has a different spin on the platform. Here's the list:
  • Sony plans to build BRAVIA Internet TVs and Blu-ray players that run the platform, all expected to launch this fall.
  • Logitech is building a Google TV "companion box" that can control your entire A/V rack using Harmony technology, using and Android phone or an iPhone as the remote.
  • Dish Network was actually the beta test partner, but we don't specifically know what its plans are -- there's no hardware right now, and Google demoed the platform using a custom IP protocol to control a Dish receiver. We're guessing that means there's no custom hardware coming, but look for Google TV-ready Dish boxes sometime in the fall as well.
  • Adobe's obviously building Flash 10.1 for the platform.
  • Intel's making the Atom CE4100 chip that's used in all these devices -- it's actually kind of a burner. More on it later on.
  • Best Buy has partnered to sell Google TV devices in its stores, so there's going to be a big retail push.
Now, these are just the launch partners -- we'd expect to see Google go after the cable companies in a big way soon, and we'd expect to see even more development around the platform as we get closer to late 2011 when the whole thing is scheduled to be open-sourced.


Launch dates

Google TV devices will be coming this year: Sony says it'll have Internet TVs and Blu-ray players in the fall, and Dish Network has made similar statements about supporting the platform around then, although with less specificity about hardware. We're not entirely sure when Logitech will be releasing its companion box, as the unit we saw was obviously not final, but we'd still expect it to launch around the holidays. Obviously this whole thing hinges on Adobe getting the final version of Flash 10.1 for Android out the door on time in June, so we'll have to keep an eye on that as well -- if that slips, there's a chance this whole thing could fall behind. But with Best Buy lined up to make a holiday retail push, there's plenty of pressure for everyone involved to get their ducks in a row and get shipping.

Software and interface

Although Google TV has a regular tiles-based homescreen that allows you to drop directly into apps and content, the most important interface element is exactly what you'd expect from Google: a search box. Just like TiVo's Swivel Search, search results from a variety of content sources are displayed as soon as you start typing -- entering "30 Rock" will bring up not only the next few episodes of the show on TV but also past episodes available to stream from Hulu, NBC, Netflix and other providers, as well as related content from YouTube and similar sites. These unified listings are a big part of how Google's trying to harmonize web content with TV content -- the idea is to divorce the content from the source, so it doesn't matter to the end user where it's coming from.

Of course, this is the exact same idea TiVo's pushing with its Premiere service, but the difference is that Google TV has a full browser with Flash -- you can theoretically navigate to virtually any video site and simply play video with no fuss. How that works in practice remains to be seen -- using the full web on a TV has never been a particularly marketable idea, and Google knows it -- it's encouraging developers to create TV-friendly versions of their sites, and it's leading the way by launching a living-room-friendly version of YouTube called YouTube Lean Back that's more catered to the 10-foot experience.

As we've said, the Google TV platform is based on Android 2.1, and it runs the Chrome browser with Flash 10.1. Google says OTA updates to later version of Android will come over time, and the platform also has some custom APIs and a new SDK for TV-based apps that will launch early next year, along with a new version of Android Market for the TV. The app demos we saw during the keynote were more impressive for their potential than their execution; for example, the NBA TV app had a cool feature that could automatically record upcoming games using your DVR while watching a streamed game that seems extremely promising, but the app itself looks more or less like a bad website, and the video stream quality appeared to be SD. Again, it's early on, so we'll have to see how developers make use of the platform -- it could be really interesting if Google TV apps advance as fast as they have on the phone side, and really boring if they stall out as painfully as every other TV-based platform has thus far.

Hardware

Google's laid out a series of baseline hardware specifications for the Google TV platform, which every piece of gear will share. The heart of the system is the Intel Atom CE4100, which launched at IDF last year. It's an Atom-based SoC with some additional silicon for decoding dual 1080p video stream, MPEG-4 support, and 3D graphics capabilities. That's joined by some custom DSPs, and things like WiFi, HDMI, and Bluetooth are all required.

Although Sony's said it will launch a line of BRAVIA TVs and Blu-ray players later this year, the only piece of Google TV hardware we've gotten to play with is the Logitech companion box, which adds in Harmony universal remote capabilities. That's not to say you'll need an expensive Harmony remote to control it, but rather that it turns your existing wireless peripherals (and quite impressively, your Android or iPhone OS device of choice) into a remote for your entire media center, relaying commands to devices over IR, RF and even IP via the onboard ethernet port. Logitech will also sell a dedicated peripheral for the Google TV companion box at launch, which they told us will combine a keyboard, touchpad and remote control and communicate with the companion box over RF.

Logitech's Google TV Companion Box hands-on

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Situated directly between your receiver and TV, Logitech's tiny box allows complete passthrough of HDMI audio and video from your source, allowing simultaneous web surfing and video playback, and will optionally connect to an HD webcam for Logitech Vid 720p video chat. While it's hard to say how it compares till we see the competition, Logitech's solution sports Intel's 1.2GHz CE4100 processor, 4GB of memory and 802.11n WiFi, and outputs Dolby 5.1 surround sound over both HDMI and optical S/PDIF outputs. Though the device only accepts HDMI input for video, it doesn't require source content to have HDCP protection, so you could theoretically use an adapter to connect older video sources as long as your display itself is HDCP-compliant.

Logitech wouldn't say the first word about pricing, though they confirmed that the unit and combo keyboard/touchpad/remote would be optionally bundled at launch; when asked about the companion box's value, they hinted that it includes all the functionality of the $400 Logitech Harmony 900 media remote -- hopefully, it won't arrive too far north of that figure.



Limitations

The potential pitfalls for Google TV are many, and while some of them will be familiar from mobile Android devices, the far more mature TV market will prove even more difficult to crack than the young, often upgrading mobile scene. When we heard the words "IR blasters" mentioned on stage at Google I/O our hearts sank. While they will work for one way compatibility with existing set-top boxes and other hardware, they can be unreliable and have no capacity to send information back to the control device. That means a Google TV that doesn't know when your DVR is full, what's on it, if it actually scheduled a recording of Ghost Whisperer like you asked or have direct access to its listings and VOD. Currently cable, IPTV and satellite providers hold all the content cards and convincing them the Google TV is here to help, not harm their business is a task that most would say ranks somewhere between impossible and unlikely.

Another potential issue (which we alluded to above) is that the browser is given its own user agent; as Google's Vic Gundotra told us in a post-keynote briefing, if content providers wish to block Google TV from viewing its videos, it has the technological capability to do so. Of course the big name is Hulu, but any other content provider could also be on the list. Will content providers be willing to design apps that work (well) on the Google TV? Like many other questions, until the hardware is out there it's impossible to tell.

But one of the most disturbing problems we see coming is a holdover from Android phones -- upgrades. Just think about how long it's taken many phones that are still on contract to subscribers to get the latest software patch, and then take a moment to wonder if Sony will have any interest in updating your 2010 Sony Internet TV to Google TV 3.0 Parfait in 2012 instead of just selling you a new flat screen instead.


Future potential

What the future may hold for Google TV could be as wide and fruitful as the success of its web search on a device everyone uses everyday already, or as barren as the fields tilled by Google Viewer and Orkut. But where its biggest challenges exist -- access to content currently held by TV broadcasters and the studios -- could also be its biggest opportunity. Finding better ways to work with the TV programming people already expect to use by partnering with the cable and satellite providers will be a major story over the life of Google TV. Experiments with interactivity through widgets and EBIF apps as well as the FCC's increasing impatience with the state of tru2way show there's a chance at bridging these gaps, but it may be a crack that opens slowly or not at all. It's succeeded in turning mobile carriers into Android fans, can it do the same with Comcast, Time Warner and DirecTV?

Another lesson learned from the mobile space is that even can't, or at least shouldn't, go it alone. The Nexus One sales experiment has faded, and it's clear that the work done, mostly by HTC, to improve the interaction with Android and the devices it runs on have served to promote the platform. If we compare what we saw this week to the G1 on T-Mobile, imagine a few years down the road when they find the home theater equivalent of HTC and Sense, and deliver an EVO 4G-level device with power that truly excites users and software that compels them to line up to get it. Other alternatives to the current approach will mean expanding the number of hardware partners beyond Sony -- Samsung is wavering, but we'll need more -- and devices beyond just displays and standalone boxes. Right now the lowly A/V receiver seems like a perfect target for increasing functionality and connectivity with all equipment -- if the price and the features are right.


Wrap-up

Google is first to admit the TV / internet convergence isn't a new concept -- in an incredibly amusing slip of the tongue during yesterday's post-keynote briefing, Gundotra himself called it WebTV, one of the earliest attempts that ultimately fizzled. What we saw this week was a lot of potential, and when we say that, we also mean we're left with numerous unanswered questions. More importantly, in a world where most of the targeted audience already has plenty of streamers and set-top boxes (not to mention smartphones and laptops that can let us couch surf without giving up any "big screen' real estate), we're not seeing a lot of justification. That said, Google is a strong and trusted brand, and that can go a long way in consumer mindshare -- just look at Apple TV. With the Fall release window really not that far off, the gang in Mountain View are gonna need to make a much more compelling case, unless of course, it's also just a hobby.

Richard Lawler, Ross Miller, and Sean Hollister contributed to this piece

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Google TV: everything you ever wanted to know