Google TV Gets Cautious Welcome

Analysts have given Google’s upcoming Android 2.1-based TV offering the thumbs up, but caution that the IT industry is littered with past web TV failures

Industry analysts are calling Google TV promising, but are guarded in their enthusiasm because the internet-television graveyard is littered with failed services from Microsoft’s WebTV in 1996 to Intel’s Viiv entertainment platform a decade later.

Announced late last week at Google I/O, Google TV marries web surfing and channel surfing, much like existing services such as Apple TV, TiVo, Boxee, Roku and Vudu.

Android, Chrome plus Blu-Ray

The Google Android 2.1-based platform will place a Chrome browser on web-connected televisions and Blu-ray players, initially from Sony and set-top boxes from Logitech.

TV buffs will be able to call up a drag-down search box to switch from channel to channel, even searching for information about a programme, including comments from Twitter or while they watch in the lower right-and corner of their screen.

Unlike Apple’s iPhone and iPad, Google TV supports Adobe Flash 10.1, so users will also search for and use internet applications from video websites such as NetFlix, YouTube and Amazon video-on-demand to Google Picasa, Yahoo Flickr, Pandora and gaming websites without fear of being locked out.

TV viewers will navigate among channels and applications with a special remote control from Logitech, or from their Android 2.1 or higher phones. Intel Atom chips power the Sony and Logitech hardware. Google’s Android team will also upgrade its software developer kit (SDK) to allow developers to write apps for the service, albeit after the service launches.

The service has been optimised for the Dish Network satellite TV service in the US, but should work with all providers when Best Buy begins selling the components this autumn. Engadget has the ultimate Google TV primer here.

Gartner analyst Van Baker, who was initially skeptical about Google TV in comments made to eWEEK in March, said the service looks promising but that a lot depends on execution.

Baker likes the open and ease of integration of Google TV, as TV service providers can embed the Google TV code in their set-top boxes; TV makers can inject the code directly into the boxes they build; and consumers can buy Google TV-enabled set-top boxes.

“There’s no way anyone can prevent this from being deployed because even if service providers like Comcast or DirectTV don’t like the idea, there’s nothing they can do about it because the software takes the HDMI out feed from the set-top box and Androids it into this bigger environment and presents that to the consumer,” Baker said.

But Baker also cautioned that Google TV may be confusing at first to consumers because it marries personal content from websites that users log into with television service content and makes it a searchable database.

“If I go do a search for ‘Lost,’ I’m going to get everything related to that. If what I want to do is watch programming, I’m going to have to wade through some stuff to find out which ones are programmes, which ones are YouTube videos and which ones just mention those.”

To that end, Baker said there will be a bit of a wait-and-see attitude on Google TV from television makers and service providers to see what kind of traction it gets from consumers.

Envisioneering Group analyst Richard Doherty was among the more sceptical analysts, looking at Google TV more for what it lacked than what it had at launch. Doherty doesn’t like that the Android SDK which allows programmers to write apps for Google TV won’t ship till after the service launches this fall.

“That’s a real knee-bender for what should have been a great celebration,” said Doherty, who told eWEEK that Google TV seemed like Intel Viiv 2.0 [We don’t know what a “knee-bender” is in the UK, but we’re hoping it’s not offensive – UK Editor].

He also wonders how Google will add advertising to the mix and whether it will conflict with existing ads from TV service providers.

“Most of us in the US get our broadband from a cable provider. If I have another ad pop up on top of the local avail when I’m watching ‘House,’ when I would normally see the Chevy Tahoe ad, slowly but surely Comcast, Cox and Time Warner and Cablevision will lose revenue. They don’t like losing revenue, so they’ll raise service rates or raise the cable modem rate.”

To that end, other than satellite provider Dish, there were no cable TV or IPTV service providers championing Google TV on stage at I/O, Doherty noted.

With a court recently overturning the Federal Communications Commission to regulate how Comcast offers its services, Doherty said it’s reasonable to assume cable and IPTV service providers could slap a surcharge on users who subscribe to Google TV. That will hurt consumers. Worse, Comcast and others could slam their doors on Google TV outright.

“If you don’t have enough players at the table, it’s just not crossed arms, it’s blocked pipes,” Doherty said.

Doherty said he also expected more TV content providers on stage other than the NBA and expected to hear about parental control features for the service to enable parents to control what they’re children are viewing.

Google declined to comment about the analyst’s complaints.

However, a person familiar with the Google TV strategy said the service shouldn’t be judged in whole by who wasn’t on the stage for the introduction at I/O. Google is confident cable, IPTV and satellite TV providers will climb aboard for the service.

Moreover, Google has not yet announced special advertising plans for Google TV. For that, industry analysts will have to wait and see.