Google strikes back at the big screen with Android TV

Google announced its plan to take on the billions of TV viewers in the world with a groundbreaking product that would blur the lines between internet and broadcast -- four years ago. Executives from Dish Network, Best Buy, Sony, Logitech, Sony and Intel joined the stage with Google's then-CEO Eric Schmidt to herald the coming of a new era -- which never came. Several generations of Google TV devices failed to catch on and it was eventually squeezed out by set-top boxes, game consoles and other "smart TV" platforms.

The idea seemed to come right on time; according to market research firm Strategy Analytics as many as 76 million smart TVs shipped last year, and companies like Apple and Roku have sold millions of connected boxes. So why didn't Google TV get a major piece of that action? And what makes Google's latest initiative, Android TV, any different?

Out with the old

To start with, the concept has been reimagined, with Android TV coming in as a one-size-fits-all platform through devices people actually want -- not what Google thinks they want. The large QWERTY-keyboard/remote combos are nowhere to be seen, gone in favor of traditional remotes and actual gamepads for gaming. Where Google TV sought to dominate your home TV ecosystem with passthroughs and overlays, its successor is ready to fit in. It could solve problems for those who want a cheap streaming box, a game console or even (maybe) a DVR, with apps that work everywhere and add features as easily and frequently as our phones do.

The original Google TV demo focused on showing how good it was at bringing the web to TV, highlighting a picture-in-picture letting you browse or tweet with TV in a small window. The plan was to make a platform that could play any web video easily without requiring custom apps, at least until Hulu and the rest blocked it. Now? Google's own developer site includes this passage:

We discourage including web browsing in games for Android TV. The television set is not well-suited for browsing, either in terms of display or control scheme.

What Google TV product manager Rishi Chandra said on stage then about the existing pay-TV experience and its terrible guides is still mostly true, and years of cord-cutting/cord-never behavior has even more viewers looking for an alternative. The internet TV market is still fragmented between services (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu) and hardware manufacturers are all desperately pushing their own platforms, with varying levels of success. While the reality of Apple TV has seen slight upgrades, the rumors are as loud and unfounded as ever, so there's plenty of time for Google to turn back the clock and just try again.

In with the new

What is truly different about this push starts with Google and Android. Google TV was a team separated from Android, with its own developer tools, software that wasn't the same version and even an odd set of mismatched features (like shipping with the Chrome browser before Android even had it). Android L is one platform that pulls both sides forward together, all at once. That's good for developers and ultimately good for anyone using Android TV, with apps and a UI that can (theoretically) stretch across platforms, and work together as easily as Chromecasting. Its ability to work as a Cast receiver makes using one easier than the old version. The same goes for a revamped remote app, which isn't any prettier than the one it's replacing, but is much simpler.

Voice search and personalized recommendations that came later to the Google TV platform, combined with Google Now, can change TV viewing in a way that wasn't possible in 2010. Google's Dave Burke was able to ask a natural question, "Who played Katniss in The Hunger Games?" to his phone, and got an immediate response on the TV -- something I can see actually cutting down the amount of time spent figuring out what to watch, and just jumping in to watch. As far as availability, Android TV will have better hardware support from just Sony (probably more than willing to offload R&D costs from its freshly independent TV division) next year than Google TV ever did, not to mention others like Razer, ASUS and Sharp. I'll need some hands-on time -- and actual retail devices -- to tell for sure, but on paper, the hardware requirements (2GB of RAM, 8GB of flash storage, WiFi and/or Ethernet, Bluetooth) seem ready to avoid the combination of overpriced and underpowered that doomed the first attempt.

Google TV seemed so concerned about trying to partner with traditional TV providers -- which never took off in the US -- that it wasn't ready for cord cutters or people without a standard cable box. This time around, that's changed. The suite of potential video apps for viewers to go streaming-only has grown drastically, however the list announced on stage was disappointingly short, with YouTube, Netflix and Showtime Anytime at the top, but no HBO Go, Vudu, Amazon or Hulu.

It has support for PlayReady DRM, which could eventually make it a viable Windows Media Center or HTPC alternative for the enthusiasts that want that. It can tune directly into live TV broadcasts with the support of third-party hardware. SiliconDust makes TV tuners for viewers to watch TV over antenna or cable on a computer (or PS3), and that's what provided the live feed you saw at the keynote. It has a plugin for Android TV that will let it work with the company's current hardware, and unspecified future products. Lessons learned from Google TV and improved Android L support mean companies like Plex are already in position with impressive media apps, and hopefully that list will grow before Android TV debuts this fall.

The competition

The four-year time gap has introduced some downsides, as former friends and enemies alike have found new partners or built formidable setups of their own. Logitech is apparently no longer interested in building a TV box; LG released multiple Google TV devices, but has turned its attention (fully) to webOS and HTML5 apps; and Vizio ditched Android for its recent products as well. Samsung never came through with the Google TV hardware it reluctantly demonstrated; now it seems poised for a Tizen-based approach and has even acquired the team and tech behind Boxee.

Comcast's march to world domination is coming with a juiced-up cable box platform called X1 that has internet access, cloud-powered apps and voice search (also, maybe games), while TiVo has a much improved follow-up to the Premiere DVR and cloud-based plans of its own. Microsoft left Media Center behind, but its Xbox One is a living room Trojan horse in the way Google always wanted to be, and Amazon has seemingly beaten Google to the punch with its own TV box based on Android.

The bottom line

Despite all of those attempts, and even Google's patchy track record (Chromecast: good; Nexus Q: so, so bad), no one company or platform is ready to dominate the internet-connected TV future yet. The new Android TV effort seems ready to just make popular internet features better on the big screen, instead of dominating all living room media as the price of entry. That's probably not enough to justify any more lofty predictions from Schmidt (he said Google TV would be in most TVs by mid-2012), but I expect it will be enough to keep Google in the game this time.