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Next Up for Android: Your Cable Box?

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Google (s GOOG) TV may be struggling, but Android could still play a big role in the future of TV, at least if MIPS (s MIPS) has its way. The chip developer is announcing a new Android-powered SmartCE platform at CES today that squarely targets the lower end of the CE value chain.

“Our goal is to offer a solution that runs on mainstream DTVs, set-top boxes and Blu-ray players that are available today,” said Kevin Kitagawa, director of strategic marketing at MIPS via email. The company’s customers want to be able to build devices that “don’t require the hundreds of dollar price premiums that Google TV requires today,” he told me.

MIPS showed off its first stab at Android-powered set-top boxes at CES 2010. This year’s SmartCE approach is based on Android 2.2 and offers Flash integration, video chat capability via Skype, Home Jinni’s ConnecTV media center application as well as access to YouTube, Netflix (s NFLX) and similar services. MIPS is licensing the platform to a number of chip manufacturers, including Sigma Designs (s SIGM) and ViXS Systems, and the company is showing off reference designs of set-top-boxes running SmartCE at CES.

So how long will it take until we see devices like these in the store, or even in our living rooms? “Based on product cycles, we would expect that reference platforms announced now will start showing up in digital media adaptors and DTVs in the next year,” Kitagawa said. MIPS is already powering an Android TV that’s scheduled to go in production in China this month as well as set-top boxes that are currently in production in Korea.

However, Android in the living room isn’t just about devices that people may one day pick up at Best Buy. (s BBY) Pay TV providers like Comcast (s CMCSA) and AT&T (s T) use MIPS for their set-top boxes, and Kitagawa told me that some of the more advanced devices for services like U-verse are based on technologies that were first introduces as reference designs two to three years ago. In other words: Two years down the road, your cable box could be Android-powered.

Now what does all of this mean for Google TV? Competition from cheaper Android CE devices could put further pressure on the platform, and Google TV’s high price has been a point of contention before. Panasonic (s PC) decided against deploying Google TV because Google mandates that devices running the platform have to use expensive Intel (s intc) chip-sets and come with a generous amount of Flash memory as well as a fully QWERTY keyboard. Consumers and reviewers have also been skeptical of Google TV devices in part because of the high price: Logitech’s Revue (s logi) set-top box retails for $300, and Sony’s (s sne) Google TV-powered Blu-ray player costs a whopping $400.

But a bigger footprint for Android in the living room could also benefit Google. Not only could devices powered by SmartCE help make competing platforms like Yahoo’s (s YHOO) Connected TV widgets obsolete; the Android platform could also eventually help to bring Google TV to classes of devices that currently seem out of reach. Google TV may be too expensive and resource-hungry for today’s cable boxes, but that may change a few years down the line. “The work we are doing with SmartCE will pave the way for our customers to support Google TV too,” said Kitagawa.

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One Response to “Next Up for Android: Your Cable Box?”

  1. Paul Schneider

    Memo to CE folks and cable operators: Why are we waiting for things that are still on the roadmap? The CloudTV platform that Funai is integrating into Philips brand TVs is already in nearly 5 million cable and IPTV homes. The expectation is that Philips TVs with CloudTV embedded will be at retail by Q2 of this year.