In a world of connected screens it's sometimes hard to classify what's what. I mean, what's a PC? We call smartphones "phones," but the reality is they're tiny PCs that go in our pocket. Similarly, the TV has undergone an evolution as well, and now Google is attempting to bring the PC and TV even closer together with the introduction of Google TV. What is it? Well there are three core elements: Android 2.2, the Chrome browser and the Android app marketplace. It's ambitious, but I'm skeptical. I feel like I've heard a lot of this before -- and in fact, I have. By no small coincidence, Android is headed by Andy Rubin, the man who was in charge of a product called WebTV before it was sold to Microsoft. And just as with WebTV, there's a lot of potential in the ideas behind GoogleTV, but I'm not sure Google has nailed it.
GoogleTV will launch this fall on a new line of connected TVs and Blu-ray players from Sony, as well as a set top box from Logitech. This strategy has a familiar feel -- Sony's sold TVs with integrated TiVo functionality in the past, and no one wanted them. Mixing TV content with a third-party set top box is also a challenge. In fact, vendors like Apple and Roku avoid doing this because it's a hassle. Unless you incorporate CableCARD into your box, users still need to rely on a separate cable box for content, and that's a problem -- in order to integrate command and control, Google is using an IR blaster. Yep -- an IR blaster. The same way I connected my first-gen TiVo in 1997. See, I told you this was familiar.
Strip out the "whole web" and apps, and you're pretty much left with an updated version of the first-gen TiVo, minus the DVR capabilities.
Once you get connected Google says GoogleTV is different because it's the whole web on your TV, as well as the entire Android marketplace -- all your Android apps will work on GoogleTV. The problem is the TV is not just another connected screen -- the TV is the largest screen in the home, and it's optimized for passive viewing of content as a shared experience. Research has shown time and time again that consumers don't want the whole internet on their TVs. Consumers simply don't want Gmail or Twitter or the "whole" web on the TV. There's a fundamental difference between what Google is offering and what consumers want -- and, importantly, what they're willing pay for. Plus, it's hard to sell the consumer on having to buy a complex remote or using their phones as a remote. (Note to Google: remotes are shared household device, and are often left on the couch. Phones are personal, rarely shared, and aren't usually left on they couch unless by mistake.) Strip out the "whole web" and apps, and you're pretty much left with an updated version of the first-gen TiVo, minus the DVR capabilities.
I get why the TV is important to Google -- it's a great opportunity for even more ad revenue. But the TV is not a phone or a PC. Consumers are looking for a different type of connected experience in their living rooms, and it's one that so far has defied every attempt to merge the TV and PC. GoogleTV just feels like the latest in a long line of niche products more likely to appeal to the enthusiast than to the mass market. An old joke has a consumer lamenting for a phone or PC that's as easy to use as a TV. Google can't succeed making the TV as complex as your other devices.
Michael Gartenberg is a partner at Altimeter Group. His weblog can be found at gartenblog.net. Contact him at gartenberg AT gmail DOT com. Views expressed here are his own.