Switched On: Casting light on the Chromecast

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

DNP Switched On Casting light on the Chromecast

Sold out for weeks after its launch, everyone seems to be in love with the Chromecast -- the ultra-cheap, ultra-small, interface-free, HDMI-toting TV appendage that stole the show from the new Nexus 7. Building beyond the DIAL device-discovery protocol that Netflix and YouTube have supported, Chromecast is a client of Google Cast, which enables the kind of second-screen control for volume and other features implemented by the device.

Google has gotten the jump on similar products such as the Plair TV dongle by natively supporting three of the most popular services to use on televisions -- Netflix, YouTube and Pandora. Furthermore, it has also enabled a backdoor to many other services by building in support for displaying Chrome tabs on a Chromecast-connected TV. In doing so, it treats the TV as an extension of the browser just as Apple's forthcoming OS X Mavericks can treat an Apple TV-connected set as another Macintosh screen.

The Chrome brand may not mean much to consumers at this point (at least compared to Android), but it's shaping up to represent a few things to Google, which marked the metallic name's focus on simplicity. But unlike other competitive products that marry simplicity with sophisticated, premium industrial design, the Chrome brand connotes affordable simplicity. For example, in their marketplace ascent, Chromebooks have become the new netbooks -- truer to that name, in fact, than the Windows-based versions ever were.

Chromecast is very much in keeping with the Chrome ethos.

Chromecast is very much in keeping with the Chrome ethos. It runs on Chrome OS, which means that its software layer is essentially a browser. It also encourages HTML-based development, which -- despite the strong software support that Android has received -- remains Google's desired endgame. Chromecast is cross-platform, but very much tied to the Chrome browser. In fact, Google's introduction of Chromecast portrayed the mobile device universe as consisting only of Android and iOS products, the only ones on which Chrome is available.

But Chromecast is more than a cross-platform play; it's a countermove against WiFi extensions such as AirPlay, which will likely never move beyond the iOS ecosystem; it also does this without using Miracast, the Wi-Fi Alliance's attempt to build its own answer to AirPlay, and for which Microsoft recently announced support in Windows 8.1.

Two years ago, Switched On discussed some of the key challenges of smart TV. At least three different approaches -- including the disastrous Nexus Q -- have tried using Android to crack it. But recent findings from Reticle Research show that the feature consumers are most interested in from a smart TV is the ability to send content from a smartphone or tablet.

Perhaps frustrated by Google TV's slow adoption, Google has launched Chromecast as a hedge, a bet that TV may not enter into a robust app ecosystem the way that Samsung and others think it will. While it continues to play both sides of that bet, it has just tipped the scales a bit in favor of a solution that's simpler, more focused and -- assuming you have the requisite second screen -- much cheaper.

Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a research and advisory firm focusing on consumer technology adoption. He shares commentary at Techspressive and on Twitter at @rossrubin.