Google TV: Next Big Thing Or Wishful Thinking?

I would love to hop on the *Google* TV bandwagon. It sounds like a fun ride with lots of great company and exciting plans. But it’s a hard jump to make given how many internet/web/connected TV bandwagons I’ve seen crash and burn or simply fizzle between the cable and consumer tech industries. The constellation of big names Google (NSDQ: GOOG) has as partners — Sony (NYSE: SNE), Logitech, Intel (NSDQ: INTC), Dish, Best Buy — helps build momentum but is no guarantee of success. Anyone remember Intel Viiv? Web TV? Joost? Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO) Connected Life? Paul Allen’s Wired World? The myriad set-top boxes and streaming devices? Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) TV? Digeo? Insert your own examples here. They were either ahead of their time, not ready for prime time, or in some cases, not worth the time.

Maybe the best thing going for Google TV is it wasn’t announced at CES. I’ve been having Las Vegas flashbacks (the tech-hangover kind, not the tiger-in-the-bathroom kind). One vivid memory is of sitting on the crowded floor in a booth during a 2006 press conference so big even the overflow was full for the — long drum roll — unveiling of the Google Video Marketplace. That turned out to be a bigger payday for the YouTube founders than for Google and its partners. Instead, long-rumored Google TV was unveiled at Google I/O in front of 5,000 or so developers and a remote audience following by streaming video.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt was speaking to both when he talked about what it took get there. “We’ve been waiting a long, long time for this day. It took a lot to make this happen. It took the internet. It took extraordinarily fast CPUs, DSPs, a whole new architecture around software, open source and all the platforms that you’ve seen.” He added a dab of humility: “It’s much harder to marry a 50-year-old technology and a brand new technology than those of us from the brand-new technology thought.” But just a dab, mind you. Schmidt has decided Google is ready not only to make it happen, but in the immortal words of Tim Gunn, “make it work.”

In its favor:

Multiple paths: Google isn’t betting it all on one device or, it appears, price range. Sony will provide the one-stop experience with Sony Internet TV, offered through a sleek HDTV with Intel Atom processing power and a wireless QWERTY remote or a set-top box with a Blu-ray Disc drive. Logitech, already in the living room via Harmony remotes, is planning a companion set-top box that will “seamlessly” add Google TV to current HD sets through an HDMI port, and “an intuitive controller.” It should be a lot less expensive than buying a new set, especially for those who upgraded to HD only recently. Logitech estimates there are roughly 60 million HD sets being used in the U.S. For the basics, Logitech says a broadband connection and HDMI port are enough; for full capability, you need a satellite or cable set-top with HDMI output. (That last — and the deal with Dish — are important when it comes to the ability to refute claims Google is trying to cut out subscription TV, and offer the broadest spectrum of video/TV possible.) Google also says it will make the code available for others to build their own platforms.

Android & Chrome: The combined pace of Android activation — now more than 100,000 a day — and innovation is a major plus. The spread of Android and its availability across carriers can’t be overvalued; it provides reach and exposure. The innovation — providing it works as promised — not only makes Android devices into remotes; it enables communication back from the TV to the device. It’s also a streaming source, which means (see caveat above) that users should be able to push content on the phone to the TV. The Android Marketplace and the upcoming Chrome Web Store, along with the way they’re supposed to work together, add to the potential.

Easy access: Google TV promises to be the simplest way yet for 10-foot access to the web. My own living-room setup includes a Media Center PC with Windows 7 connected to the HD set. The lack of the right PC-TV remote keeps it from being used as much as it should. Google says it can solve that and provide a superior browser/search experience that lets users make the most out of internet-connected TVs — and all those web/Android apps. I can believe that; 10-foot Firefox doesn’t really cut it. To be fair, I haven’t done a lot to make my own set up a better experience. Google’s point is I shouldn’t have to.

Retail partner: The surviving consumer-electronics big-box chain has made a major commitment to new technology and serious investment in showcasing TVs. It also sells handsets for all major U.S. carriers. It’s been a limited, but good retail outlet for Apple and its management gets the value of social media so it’s not likely to let glitches turn into brush fires.

Open: I’ll let others more schooled in the nuances get into how really open this all will be but it’s based on Google Chrome and Android, both open source, and will use Flash. (Played up against Apple’s control issues, as it was almost too intensely during the keynote, it looks really open.) Developers can start optimizing sites now but the developers’ kit and the API won’t be released until after launch. The Google TV unveiling emphasized search and navigation, but the Chrome Web Store demo featured, a 10-foot programming guide with navigation designed to work on the screen with various devices as remotes. Still, Google runs the risk of looking very old-school Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) when it comes to favoring its own apps and services, especially those baked into the turn-on experience.

Working against it:

Lotta moving parts: The very things that could make Google TV cool and functional rely on a lot of partners and a lot of elements coming together. If there’s not an algorithm somewhere that shows the odds of success based on the number of disparate elements needed to make it happen, there should be.

Best Buy as retail partner: Over the years I’ve gone to Best Buy in search of any number of hot new items or services that either aren’t displayed to advantage or aren’t understood well enough by the sales staff. When a Blue Shirt gets it and can explain, it’s great. When they don’t, the sale is at risk or a potential boomerang. From my perspective, launching with exclusive sales through Best Buy hasn’t always been a plus. It’s supposed to guarantee some quality control and sales awareness but sometimes cuts off buying opportunity and interest.

Iteration for non-geeks: Sony chief Sir Howard Stringer talked up the ability to keep upgrading Sony Internet TV without changing the box or TV. That’s a big plus. But even geeks get frustrated when developers and manufacturers use that ability as an excuse for bugs. Non-geeks, who might barely be aware that their cable box gets updated, are still going to see that TV as a TV, not as a computer. Getting them used to an “evolving” TV idea is going to take time and minimal screw ups.

Like Apple and Microsoft, Google, despite its heft and brilliance, doesn’t always win or meet the frequent assumptions that anything it does is an “x-killer.” Our archives are full of examples. Sometimes, as was the case with YouTube, it buys the competition. Sometimes it just admits defeat one way or another. Then again, Google also succeeds a lot, which is why its moves are followed so carefully. This one has the potential to fall in either category.