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Editorial: Is Chromecast the little dongle that could change things?

It is sold out at Amazon. It is sold out at Best Buy online. It is sold out at the 16 Best Buy stores closest to my home in North Carolina. The nearest Best Buy availability is in Roanoke, Va. (Amazon and Best Buy are the retail outlets sanctioned by Google.) You can buy it directly from Google at the Play Store, but as of this writing, the wait time for shipping has been extended to three to four weeks.

In a world where people line up for hours to buy a $500 tablet, selling out a $35 dongle isn't necessarily a milestone, or an indicator of anything significant. But I'll hammer a prediction stake into the ground: Chromecast will create change in media consumption habits disproportionate to its price. Its power will come partly from its tech-candy pricing, but only partly. This little invention hits a few other sweet spots.

Google's latest thrust into the living room perhaps plunges deeper thanks to the the timing. Chromecast is released just as Time Warner Cable is frothing furiously at both CBS and NBC over carriage fees. They are frothing back. It is the same old battle that has played out publicly many times, as feuding antagonists in the supply and delivery chains try to make users care about their multi-billion dollar revenue squabbles. Dramatic publicity maneuvers usually include withholding channels from cable subscribers, while neglecting, predictably, to discount their bills.

TWC's Facebook page features plenty of recent complaints about that. I've also seen dozens of subscriber threats to ditch the service ... at some point in the future. Cutting the cord is easier to forebode than to conclude in many households for one main reason: convenience.

DNP Editorial Is Chromecast the little dongle that could change things

Despite cable's many problems (price, unwanted channels, price, atrocious DVR interfaces, price, frequently awful customer service and, lest I forget to mention it, price), it does a lot of heavy lifting of content into the home. The cable platform represents an ecosystem burdened with inefficiency, but the end result is push-button selection of millions of beautiful moving pictures. Cable is timely: those who buy it are paying for first delivery of episodic content and real-time events. Believe it or not, cable's arcane machinery of strung wires and set-top boxes offers a simplicity unmatched by the balkanized, device-infested realm of streaming media.

Critics of cable often start their litany of solutions with the offhand setup, "All you have to do is simply..." Everything that follows the word "simply" is way beyond the ability and interest of average media consumers. It's like when the Car Talk guys say, "All you have to do is remove the carburetor." Most people take the car into the shop and pay the bill, at the mechanics' mercy, or buy a new car. Many households pay the cable bill, at the mercy of the cable company, and keep buying new TVs.

The subtle killer aspect of Chromecast is that it accommodates the user.

The subtle killer aspect of Chromecast is that it accommodates the user rather than the user's exasperating ecosystem of content owners and distribution companies. Our computing ecosystem is separate from our TV ecosystem, despite years of attempted convergence. Chromecast is not an add-on to the TV ecosystem; it is a link-in to the computing ecosystem. It makes the TV smarter by circumventing some of its cumbersome attachments.

Chromecast is not the only wireless HDMI device that puts content on the television screen, not by a long shot. But it is the one that converges the TV with what many people are doing on the couch while watching TV. Chromecast attempts to link the user's normal couch-computing activity (running a streaming app on a tablet, or trolling for video in a browser) into the TV without fuss of cables, and without the awful TV remote. It turns your phone or tablet into a remote controller that flings media onto the TV. (Even better, when integrated apps are used, they fling instructions to Chromecast, then release the tablet or phone while Chromecast streams the content directly from the internet.)

I have Roku, and value it, but Chromecast executes an end run around Roku by circumventing its painful interface and obviating the wretched Time Warner remote. Which would you choose -- surfing Netflix with a Time Warner remote control in Roku's blocky environment, or with a Nexus 4 running the Netflix mobile app?

DNP Editorial Is Chromecast the little dongle that could change things

Many prospective users, and even adopters who have placed orders into the waiting period, might not realize the whole attraction. That $35 price tag is deceptive. Chromecast elegantly plays into consumer trends as users migrate from DVD to streaming, from cable to severed cable, from weekly episodes to binge watching, from focused viewing to multitasked viewing, from computer in the den to computer in the pocket. Google's little device ties all this together into a compelling convergence play in which the television becomes an extension of mobile.

I am not predicting Chromecast will change the media / tech landscape ... But it has enough solution power to nudge some cable-cutting fence-sitters.

I am not predicting Chromecast will change the media / tech landscape like the laptop or the smartphone. But it has enough solution power to nudge some cable-cutting fence-sitters. Its simple setup and accommodation to existing habits provide a compelling convenience factor, and convenience is what the media distribution business is built upon.

Chromecast might end up being another museum piece in the trail of debris littering the long and ineffective path of computer / TV convergence. Or its success might be merely partial, limited by refusal of streaming distributors to integrate with Chromecast -- at launch, Netflix was the only non-Google service on board. Google needs Hulu and Amazon Prime for a solid base, notwithstanding Chromecast's ability to stream from a Chrome browser tab.

But if there is industry leverage, and even a little genius in this cheap dongle, it lies in its service to existing consumer behavior, rather than trying to change consumer behavior.