Editorial: Engadget on Google TV

Google made a big splash into the home entertainment world yesterday with the announcement of Google TV -- particularly because it's partnered up with some major names like Sony, Intel, Logitech, Best Buy and Dish Network. That's a lot of industry momentum behind a platform that's trying to achieve what many believe to be impossible: marry the television to the internet. Will Google finally be the one to pull it off? To be honest, the Engadget staff is nowhere near agreement on this, so we're just going to let everyone speak for themselves -- read on!

Joshua Topolsky:

I think the potential for Google TV -- as with anything Google does -- is huge, but it's all about execution, and right now, Google hasn't shown it's got a better idea on execution than those who've come before them. The strength of the Google TV concept is the idea of a unification and simplification of our increasingly complicated TV watching experiences. Many people are now drifting from screen to screen, sometimes out of choice, but usually out of necessity. When you want to watch YouTube or Hulu you're in front of your PC; when you want to watch the latest episode of Lost you're planted on your couch; sometimes you're on a train and playing back video you've downloaded on a phone; but in each of those situations there are different interfaces, shopping experiences, content qualities, and most of all, ways to find that content. We know Google can do search, and we also know that search in TV and movies (especially with the inclusion of web content) is a growing headache, as is the playback of all that video.

The problem is that Google does have the right idea -- they want to make finding video content as easy as finding web content using their tried and tested search engine -- but they haven't given us the hardware or technical solutions to match those results. Right now Google TV is a hodgepodge of ideas -- some good, some really bad (hello IR blaster), and the trick is making all of these technologies talk to each other in a way that makes sense for the average consumer. That means one box, one connection, and zero problems. If they don't shore up partnerships with major providers (yes, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Verizon, etc.) then I don't see how they can pull this off. Google TV today is an orphan intermediary... but it needs to be the main event.

Nilay Patel:

It's really simple: any product that requires IR blaster control of a cable box is doomed to fail. Sorry, Google, but if you want to take over the living room, you've got to go all the way and build a box with built-in tuners -- otherwise you'll end up showing off embarrassing demos of Google TV controlling a TiVo Premiere that offers almost exactly the same search, discovery, and streaming content options. Oh, wait -- that's exactly what happened. Where's the Dish Network box with the built-in tuners that provides a unified, cohesive experience? That's what Google should be demoing. Speaking of which, it's not like Motorola doesn't know how to build Android devices -- where's the Motorola DCT that runs Google TV? Now that would have shaken things up a bit.

Look, I'm not saying the ideas behind Google TV are bad, or that Google won't iterate this thing and make it worthwhile in a few years. But right now the actual Google TV products are the same type of hacky kludge that the market has rejected time and time again -- anyone remember Web TV? It was a box from Microsoft with a keyboard, browser, and an email client that ran its own TV guide, using IR to control your cable box -- and there was a model from (dun dun dun) Dish Network featuring integrated tuners. It... failed, to put it lightly.

If Google really wants to revolutionize TV, it's going to have to start by taking direct control of TV itself, not gluing a UI layer on top of existing cable boxes. That means dealing with things like CableCARD, or better yet, getting cable companies like Comcast, Time Warner, and Cox to directly integrate Google TV into their platforms. Maybe Google's already working on that, but these companies have never been open to change, and they're particularly not open to change involving internet video competing directly against their on-demand offerings. Google's got a hard fight ahead of itself, and I wish it well -- heaven knows the world needs a better TV experience -- but as long as the majority of Google TV devices require an IR blaster and a separate cable box, the platform will be for niche audiences only.

P.S.- And let's not even get started on how poorly Microsoft has done with Media Center, which is a mature, flexible product that virtually no one uses, even though it's built into Windows 7 and beautifully integrated into the Xbox 360. This stuff is hard.

Paul Miller:

I'm probably the wrong guy to ask: I'm one of those boring people at parties who claims to never watch television and then glares at you judgmentally. Still, the whole idea of an internet-enhanced television watching experience has always intrigued me, merely for the fact of its spectacular failures over the past decade or so. It's clear that the market potential is there, so why hasn't any one company invested heavily enough and pushed hard enough to make it work? I don't know if Google will be the one to crack this, but there are two things they're doing that could set them apart.

Firstly, Google's Android track record is exemplary when it comes to partnerships. It's created very few disincentives to get on board (Nexus One), and a whole pile of reasons to jump in (free, open source, rapid development), which has taken the platform from one device and one carrier in late 2008 to the incredible variety of carriers, devices, and form factors we see today. The perfect scenario for TV-enhancing tech is when it costs very little or "nothing" extra to add on to a product, and with zero reason to leave it out a manufacturer might shrug its shoulders and slap that Google logo on top of what might otherwise be a bit of commodity electronics. If Google TV can seep into cable company DVRs (its most natural home, if its least likely one), then we'll really know Google is on to something.

The other big win is that Google doesn't have to "win" to win. Google's revenue is from web ads, and has merely created a platform that delivers regular websites (and a handful of new TV-optimized ones) to televisions. Similarly, the glut of iPhone-friendly websites and HTML5 experiences proved great reasons to buy an Android phone. Sure, there are some fancy application and UI add-ons on top that Google would love for you to participate in, but no matter who builds and sells ways to access it, the "real internet" (Flash, HTML5, and all their little friends) is the platform Google is pushing to the TV.

Of course, this initial launch looks pretty lackluster. IR blasters? Another set top box? Sure-to-be-overpriced Sony TVs and Blu-ray players? But the T-Mobile + G1 pairing wasn't exactly earth shattering, and look where we've ended up.

Richard Lawler (HD editor)

When I see Google TV I'm not thinking of IR blasters, the Chrome browser, or whether or not Hulu will ever be open to running on anything other than a PC. The simplicity of bringing internet content onto the TV alone -- switching to a YouTube video, or a Google map, or a photo album -- from a phone or computer to the TV screen with the press of a button is a great selling point by itself. Today most households already deal with multiple remote situations with varying degrees of success. If Sony and the rest can show buyers good reasons to try the internet on their TV, they'll be lining up for another TV or Harmony product that ties them all together. Android on phones has shown Google can effectively bring the cloud to consumer devices, and I think Google TV can succeed where others have failed.

Those cable boxes and their closed systems? Google has somehow managed to talk its way into bed with Dish, and I won't bet against its chances elsewhere. Even in the worst case scenario with CableCARD entrenched plus TV providers holding tight to the reigns of their interfaces, guides and channel information, Comcast (of all providers) has shown us another way. Just like the prototype iPad remote control it recently showed off, the company could easily produce an Android app that allows it to guide the experience -- and promote its own VOD and other services -- that talks to your set-top box via EBIF without any hacked-on solutions from years gone by. The future of TV is wide open, and if streams become wider open, Google will have a mature platform ready to take advantage. Sony -- slide Google TV into one of your receivers instead of the current XMB interface and you can count on at least one sale.

Ben Drawbaugh (HD editor):

Having access to everything that makes the internet great on a TV has always sounded like a good idea, but until now no one's been able to integrate the two experiences in a way that makes sense to anyone other than uber-geeks. So I'm excited that Google might be the one to actually make it stick, but with the few details that have been revealed don't look promising.

The biggest red flag out of the gate is the need for an IR blaster. Sure, IR is the most widely accepted control interface in the home, but it's hardly loved by all. But let's just assume it does work reliably: IR is still a very limited interface because of its one-way nature. How can Google TV provide great search results if it has no way to know what's recorded on your DVR? Or know what new shows are available for free on a provider's video on demand service? IR can only do so much, and in the case of integrating with the majority of the content consumed on TVs, it can't do enough.

Building Google TV into TVs and set-top boxes from providers makes more sense, but most internet features in TVs go unused because of their poor integration with the provider's set-top -- just look at Yahoo Widgets. The Dish integration is the most promising, but Dish isn't exactly the biggest video provider in the US. Now, if Motorola, Cisco, Comcast, Cox and Time Warner (among others) were up on stage touting integration, then Google TV's outlook would be completely different. But as long as the cable industry forces the inept tru2way down the throats of third parties who want to integrate with their services, we'll continue to see half-baked solutions that work more like VCRs from 1988 than a modern consumer electronics device.

Darren Murph:

If there's any company who can do this right, it's Google. But frankly, this still isn't what I want. I'm one of those folks who has a PC connected directly to my TV, and if I need to watch something directly from the web -- which is rare, given my cable subscription, DVR and Netflix-enabled Wii -- I simply fire up that machine and get on with it. It's a simple enough setup for me, and it works just fine. What I want is à la carte, and I honestly see limited value in providing another way to search on your television for old shows. If, however, Google were somehow able to strong-arm networks into providing their cable coverage live on the internet for a monthly fee, all of this would fit me much better. I'd certainly pay each month for live streams of ESPN, TNT, USA and maybe three or four others, and having a Google-fied search engine handling it would make it all the better. But then again, I'd utilize the TV tuners in my HTPC to watch and record OTA signals from the local FOX, CBS, NBC and ABC affiliates, so yet again I'm back to relying on my existing PC.

Does this service stand a chance? Maybe. But I can safely say I won't be buying a new set-top box nor a new television just to try it. Maybe in five years, if it's still kicking, and I need to replace my set anyway, I'd give it another look. I think one of Google's biggest obstacles here is going to be marketing and education -- a huge majority of people who buy televisions and just accept the cable boxes that are shoved down their throats do so because they barely understand any of the technology. Telling an entire generation of existing TV users that they need a new TV that "pulls content from the internet" will immediately shut down their attention sensors. Another huge problem is that this doesn't really converge anything; you're not getting rid of anything in your AV rack (even Sony's Internet TV will need a standalone DVR to keep on handling DVR duties). As Nilay alluded to, there's an overriding sense of "too complicated" surrounding this thing. And anyone technically savvy enough to be bothered with "complicated" likely already has an HTPC setup (or similar) that they're perfectly happy with. Good luck Google -- you'll probably need it.

Chris Ziegler:

Let's do everyone a solid and call this what it is: on-screen pivot search and a web browser. Both ideas are theoretically good, but neither belongs to Google; in fact, seemingly countless companies have said "hey, those are good ideas" over the past fifteen-odd years.

In fact, I'm pretty sure my WebTV Plus from 1998 accomplished well over fifty percent of what Google seeks to accomplish here. And my WebTV had a Thomas Dolby-produced background music soundtrack that could be enabled on demand to make your browsing a more relaxing experience... bet you can't say that about Logitech's companion box.

You might say, "yeah, but this is Google -- surely they can do this right where others have gotten it wrong." And yes, we'll admit: the TiVo Premiere is one of the worst executions of television pivot search capability ever executed. But it's important to remember that virtually none of Google's successes have been organically created: Android and Google Docs were both borne of acquisitions, just to name a couple. I have no more faith that Google TV will be perfect at release than Android 1.0 was. Or Orkut. Or Dodgeball. Or Wave. Or Buzz.

You get the idea.

Google TV is coming at a time when Americans' home entertainment setups are more complicated than ever. Hell, I'm an Engadget editor and I wouldn't stand a chance of being able to use mine without a well-programmed Harmony remote. Asking a typical consumer to buy a Google TV box -- or to pay extra for a television with Google TV integrated -- is going to be an extraordinarily tough sell, particularly when countless other set-top devices deliver similar functionality.

We love Android, Google, but let's just keep working on phones (and maybe the occasional tablet) for now.

Ross Miller:

I rarely watch TV without having a laptop or smartphone an arm's reach away -- it's the nature of this job, and perhaps even an indication of our ever-connected lifestyle. Seeing Google demonstrate web browsing on a television screen doesn't appeal to me because it just takes up "big screen" real estate that I'm using to catch up on How I Met Your Mother. Internet video content, however, is another story, but Google can't yet promise me that the content I'll want to watch won't be blocked (henceforth known as "being Boxee'd").

The presentation at this week's I/O keynote was nothing if not unintentionally hilarious -- it was almost inevitable, given the need to use daytime TV to present the thing (although did they really not anticipate potential phone interference with a crowd of thousands?). YouTube and NBA notwithstanding, the apps were pretty underwhelming. Let's not forget, though, that Google's audience for these events are consumers second and developers first. Showing off how easy it is to bring existing Android apps to Google TV doesn't look pretty, but we're sure quite a few programmers and engineers were elated at the compatibility. That said, the company has a very limited window -- Fall 2010, as CEO Eric Schmidt repeated ad nauseum towards the end -- and it needs to rally its developer base into producing compelling some compelling software that sets it apart from the number of other options out there.

But maybe Google's banking on brand recognition and trust to weather the initial storm and pick up the right partners. That's not the worst of gambles, but like Apple TV, I'm not quite sure when Google's offering will be able to shed its hobby status (or perhaps "beta," to borrow from the company's colloquialisms). This isn't a new concept and there isn't a lot here that separates it from the pack, and there's just so many pieces that need to fall into place in such a limited amount of time before it makes its first impression on the consumer base at large.

Thomas Ricker:

I don't own a TV. My computers already are my TVs. But I have heard of television and I've watched enough to thoroughly understand the mindset of a zombie. From a business perspective, I think the living room is a very natural move for Google as yet another screen to sell its ads on. It also creates another monetization path for YouTube. Sure, it's been done before. But this isn't WebTV, it's Google, a brand that's known and trusted by consumers and revered by geeky tech journos and early adopters. Google's also a company with enough sway to turn the once mighty Sony into a lowly "tell us how to be successful on the Internet Google" pawn.

Yeah, the experience is a little rough around the edges now, but this is a generation one rollout. Hell, what we've seen so far is just pre-release software on prototype hardware. And this is before an army of independent software developers have taken a crack at it -- having the same OS on your network connected TV and smartphone, MIDs, and tablets should make it easy for clever devs to build all sorts of interesting apps allowing the devices to interact in ways we've never dreamed. Like Android, I expect Google TV to look very different in a few years as the platform matures -- we'll see if it's as disruptive.

Don Melanson:

Internet-enabled TVs and set-top boxes have certainly been making some progress in recent years, but most efforts continue to feel like they're missing the mark. I'd propose that's because they've ignored a key fact about TV: that it's a lazy medium. When you're sitting on a couch after a hard day's work, you don't want to be presented with an endless series of menus and options, you just want to find something to watch.

Google's managed to recognize that, I think, with its deceptively simple unified search box on Google TV. Sure, you can have more or less all the same functionality on something like a TiVo Premiere, but Google's boiled things down to only the most essential elements: a single search box that's "just there," and which returns your search results in a simple list that basically treats live TV and web-based videos equally.

Now, things do get slightly more complicated (i.e. less lazy) from there with apps and phone integration and whatnot, but the fact that Google seems to have gotten this core element right at least gives me some hope. Of course, I'll probably feel differently when my TV starts whispering targeted ads at me based on what I've watched, who I've emailed, where I've driven, and what I had for breakfast.

Sean Hollister:

If you were paying attention during the dot-com bubble, you know Google's idea isn't new; back in 1996, WebTV pioneered the, well, web TV model. However, back then those interested in trying out the budding internet (not yet a facet of daily life) wanted to get the whole experience, not the dumbed-down service that company had on offer. Fast forward to 2010, and what Google's offering this fall seems to be the entire web experience coupled to the entire TV experience, integrated as tightly as PDA and cellphone were in the days right before "smartphone" was added to your vocabulary, and as long as Google hasn't made any tremendous oversights, I imagine TVs will look more and more like their vision going forward. Whether their partners' specific solutions will take off this Christmas, however, depends of course on price.

For all but the most tech-savvy early adopters, what Google and its partners are offering sounds confusing and a bit expensive to pull off. Besides, the resolution of TVs has increased in the HD era such that you don't need a special interface to adequately view a regular PC connected to an HDTV, and as such a sizable number of those same consumers have or can build a media center PC that does most of the same things Google TV promises, without needing Google's help.

Jacob Schulman (intern):

The thing that strikes me most about Google TV is the possibility of a standardized TV operating system that has the potential to be integrated by major TV manufacturers. What's more compelling to me than a standalone set top box is a unified interface for accessing web content across televisions in general. Vizio has me intrigued with its Vizio Internet Apps suite, and I'm definitely eying the Boxee box, but the promise of something like Google TV that could unify the best qualities of the two could be the combination that has the power to take off in the market. As for said market, I'll be interested to see the response to the first crop of STBs and Google TV-ready television sets that hits. Price will inevitably be the crucial factor, and I can see it being a real success if they can keep hardware costs as low as possible. I know I could never justify the price of the Apple TV, and while Google's offering has different capabilities and features, I don't think I could see myself dropping more than $200 for the pleasure of using it.