Hulu on Android Foreshadows Google TV War

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Hulu videos can be viewed on any Android phone with Android 2.2 and Flash 10.1, Absolutely Android reported this weekend. Hulu blocks mobile phones for licensing reasons, but the trick to get them to play on Android handsets is actually pretty simple: Users just have to change the user agent setting of the phone’s Chrome web browser to make it think the phone is a desktop computer, and Hulu’s videos will start playing on the phones with no problem.

That’s a nice trick for Nexus One owners trying to catch the Lost series finale on the go, but the revelation also points to something much bigger: Hulu videos will inevitably find their way onto the Google TV platform when it launches this fall, and Hulu won’t be happy about it. In fact, the site’s corporate overlords could force it into an all-out war on over-the-top streaming devices, and the results could hurt both Hulu and Google.

Don’t believe me? Then consider this: Google TV Product Lead Rishi Chandra did a search for House when he demoed the platform at the company’s developers conference last week. The search results clearly included episodes from Hulu. However, he didn’t demonstrate Hulu streaming and instead proceeded to watch a trailer from Amazon.com’s VOD platform.

Google’s VP of Engineering Vic Gundotra didn’t really want to say whether Hulu runs on Google TV. Technically it would be capable to, he said during an I/O press conference, but the ultimate decision would have to be made by the content owner. In other words: Google would like to play Hulu content on the Google TV, but it can’t promise that it will work. Hulu didn’t comment on whether it will play on Google TV or not when contacted by us.

Of course, that’s very similar to the issues Boxee dealt with a year ago when Hulu decided to lock out Boxee users. The difference is that Google TV is an open source operating system, capable of running a whole bunch of code that goes far beyond of what’s possible with Boxee.

Not only does the most recent version of Chrome for Android allow users to switch user agents, which means they’re essentially pretending to access a web site with a different browser and device, there’s also a number of third-party browsers that have been supporting this functionality for a while. In fact, there are even dedicated Android tools to mask the identity of your device. Many of these apps should run on Google TV out of the box, and one can be certain the developers will come up with new ways to extend the platform and in turn play Hulu videos.

Hulu will likely respond by stepping up the security cat-and-mouse game, which will result in developers coming up with even better ways to circumvent these roadblocks. Who will win? I think it’s too early to tell. It’s been more than a year since Hulu first went after Boxee, and Boxee’s users can still access the site’s content through the application’s integrated browser. Hulu eventually could get the upper hand by relying on Flash security, but that would mean to permanently lock itself out of HTML5, while other are starting to innovate with it.

Google and its partners on the other hand could have a hard time selling Google TV to consumers if their answer to “will this play Hulu” is “maybe it will, maybe it won’t.”

The solution would obviously be to make peace before the war starts. Hulu and its owners should give up on the notion that content is allowed to play on a 27″ screen, but not on a 32″ screen, and Google could help to make this happen by offering some insights into its plans for advertising on Google TV. Once the money is on the table, people will talk. But expect some more shots to be fired before that happens.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Nevada Tumbleweed.

Related content on GigaOm Pro: Google Takes the Open Battle to Apple on Multiple Fronts (subscription required)

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