Google TV or Apple TV?

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With the recent unveiling of Google TV and rumors swirling of a pending cloud-based Apple TV, it’s interesting to see how both companies’ strategies will play out in this market. Apple, meeting with limited success with its product, has called its device “a hobby” but Google is forging ahead with what it believes could revolutionize the industry. So how do they compare?

What’s In a Name?

For starters, they both feature similar names. Simply take your company name and slap TV on the end. Very original, Google, but a point goes to Apple for having the idea first.

Beyond just what’s on the box, though, what do both of these companies stand for? What do users really associate with these brands? For Google, it tends to be searching and information. For Apple, it tends to be entertainment. You can back up this argument just by looking at what these companies do. Google has set the standard for search engines and Apple has created an entire ecosystem of products around iTunes, including content and third-party support.

How Does the Hardware Match Up?

Details on the new Google TV are sketchy, though we know it’s really more of a platform than just a piece of hardware. External set-top boxes will be produced by Logitech and partners like Sony will build the technology into their televisions. Additional television vendors will be added over time as they build in the technology as well. But how does the hardware compare? Here’s what we know.

Google TV

  • 1.2GHz “Sodaville” Atom Processor
  • 4GB of Memory
  • 802.11n Wi-Fi & Ethernet
  • Dual HDMI ports
  • Dual USB ports
  • S/PDIF out
  • Video Chipset: Unknown
  • Storage: Unknown
  • OS: Android

For comparison, let’s look at what the current Apple TV offers.

Apple TV

  • 1GHz “Crofton” Pentium M Processor
  • 256MB of Memory
  • 802.11n Wi-Fi & Ethernet
  • HDMI port
  • Component Video, Stereo Audio, Optical Audio Out
  • USB port (for service only)
  • Video Chipset: NVIDIA G72M with 64MB DDR2 memory
  • Storage: 40GB or 160GB
  • OS: Mac OS X 10.4.x

Purely looking at the specs, it looks like the Google TV blows the Apple TV out of the water, which is understandable considering the Apple TV hasn’t seen a hardware update (aside from a larger hard drive) since its launch in 2007. But rumor has it that a new Apple TV is around the corner and it could provide some stiff competition, boasting an A4 processor similar to the iPad and capable of delivering 1080p content.

The Experience

So what’s the big deal about Google TV? In Google’s eyes, it’s all about giving users the ability to find the content they want across a wide variety of mediums including broadcast TV, YouTube and pretty much anywhere on the Internet. The device also includes a built-in web browser (with support for Flash) allowing users to access content from virtually anywhere.

While the current Apple TV doesn’t support interfacing at all with broadcast TV, nor full Internet access, it still offers similarities with Google TV, like YouTube or accessing photos from the cloud from sources like Flickr or MobileMe. In fact, it even beats Google’s approach by tapping on the power of the iTunes Store, providing users with tons of content that they can buy or rent and download.

That’s really where we see a big difference in the strategies of both companies. On one hand, Google is attempting to aggregate all of the content from a wide range of places into one simple list of search results. How effective will this be? If I search for “Battlestar Galactica” will I find random YouTube clips, bootleg TV shows and other vaguely related ephemera mixed in? As I mentioned earlier, Google TV is a platform running Android, which means that an SDK will be available to allow developers to create specialized apps. In theory, Netflix could easily develop its own Google TV app just as it did for the iPad. Unfortunately, the openness of this platform can also be a disadvantage. Look at HTC’s Android-based products, for instance, which feature different interfaces for similar tasks.

On the other hand, Apple’s strategy has been to provide content that people want, but holding that content to a high standard of quality mixed with a simple to use interface. To see what I mean by this, look no further than the App Store which, for better or worse, has maintained a growing selection of quality apps. Or consider the iTunes Store. It’s easy to browse and find a show that I want, view any of the seasons that are available to purchase and sometimes even have my choice of SD or HD content.

While the current Apple TV may not have some of the features of Google’s offering, it does play very well with Apple’s iTunes ecosystem and that’s something that Google cannot, and hasn’t yet shown a desire to, compete with.

The Future

Even at this week’s D8 conference, Steve Jobs still referred to the Apple TV as a “hobby” and, while we are eagerly anticipating rumors of a cloud-based Apple TV to come to fruition, we’re still left where we began — a box that is just a hobby. In fact, at the conference he expressed his views on set-top boxes altogether.

The problem with innovation in the TV industry is the go-to-market strategy. The TV industry has a subsidized model that gives everyone a set top box for free. So no one wants to buy a box. Ask TiVo, ask Roku, ask us…ask Google in a few months. The television industry fundamentally has a subsidized business model that gives everyone a set-top box, and that pretty much undermines innovation in the sector. The only way this is going to change is if you start from scratch, tear up the box, redesign and get it to the consumer in a way that they want to buy it.

We’ve speculated before about what a future Apple TV could look like and rumors are circulating that the next version could be based on the iPhone OS. This inevitability opens the door to an App Store and, at least in my opinion, works to address the issue of getting content to the consumer in a way that they want to buy it. Apple has tried several approaches to this (iTunes Extras, for instance) but nothing has really seen the runaway success like the App Store.

For comparison, a good number of people feel the print industry is dying, but looking at the success of the Wired iPad app, all of a sudden developers have a powerful canvas to push existing content and new ideas of content to consumers. Would a similar model be successful in the living room environment? What do you think? Do you think Google TV will really be a game-changer or a lackluster platform? Is Apple’s direction or Google’s the best? Share what you think.

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Related GigaOM Pro Research: Google TV: Overview and Strategic Analysis

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