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Dear Google: The future of the living room is integrated

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If there’s one thing you have to admire Google for, it’s that when the company does something, it usually goes big. Whether it’s search, mobile (Android), social networking (Google+) or TV (Google TV), there are no half measures in the lot.

But when it comes to Google TV, you have to wonder if Google went too big too soon.

Compared to the playbooks of Apple and Roku, it would seem so. Devices from those two companies had a more modest intention, which was to gradually become the key user interface for over-the-top entertainment, slowly growing more essential as consumers increased their consumption of Internet-delivered content. Google TV, on the other hand, wanted it all from the start: It essentially aimed to be the key interface for all TV entertainment right away. It was, as Michael Gartenberg has aptly stated, aiming for input one out of the gate.

Was Google completely wrong to try to own the TV interface? No. In fact, I think that’s where Google should be aiming . . . eventually. As I write in my weekly update at GigaOM Pro (subscription required), the future of the living room interface, and of devices themselves, is one where consumers won’t be able to tell whether content is delivered through a pay-TV network or over the top. In time all content will be managed through one interface and one remote.

The hardware itself will also become more integrated, meaning fewer external boxes. But that will take a long time, as the installed base of HDTVs is very big and will take years to turn over. Logitech, who provided the hardware for Google TV, saw the power of Google’s vision, but it didn’t realize that going so big so early in the game was essentially a high-stakes gamble. That gamble didn’t pay off, and Logitech, not Google, took the biggest hit. Hardware miscues are infinitely more costly than software ones from a product perspective, as evidence by the $34 million charge the company just took.

Google, on the other hand, will be fine, as it can refashion its platform and iterate, much like it has done with Android. The company needs to think about the long game, understanding that the market wasn’t ready for the winner-take-all strategy with its disappointing 1.0 edition. It needs to focus on working with hardware partners on highly integrated — but perhaps more simplified — efforts (like Apple TV) for this next go-around (and by simplified, we don’t mean QWERTY keyboards as the primary remote). Google also needs to lock down more over-the-top content — perhaps the arrival of Android Market (and content-as-apps) will do so — because clearly the shelves on the first go-around were a bit bare.

Recent announcements at Google I/O show that Google has at least learned some lessons from this first attempt and that it is on the path to simplification, which is good. The only question is, Next time around, will Google be able to find hardware partners who are as eager for its big-play mentality as they were in the first round?

For more of my thoughts on Google TV and the future of living room integration, see my weekly update at GigaOM Pro (subscription required).

Image courtesy of flickr user Jason Edward Scott Bain

28 Responses to “Dear Google: The future of the living room is integrated”

  1. cabdriverjim

    Keyboard as the only remote? You’re missing the picture, my friend. Revue doesn’t include a traditional remote for 2 reasons both of which I enjoy: 1) Buy a $50 Logitech Harmony remote, add your “non-integrated” hardware to it, let it auto-configure your activities and nearly every complaint about “lack of
    integration” is instantly gone. 2) Install Logitech Harmony for Android from Market on a phone.

    That said, the Revue needs a FULL Harmony remote application on it. Having to buy the blasted Harmony remote when the Revue hardware could provide all of that functionality without it is a bit annoying. It does make it feel a little non-integrated. Especially if the remote gets out of sync with the hardware power states on weird devices. (e.g. off does not reliably turn off my DVR; so sometimes harmony turns off the DVR when it thinks its turning it on). If they want to drive harmony remote sales then fine. They could just flash the harmony remote firmware with something that routes all commands via the Revue and modify the Revue’s built-in harmony app to take over the entire universe. I suspect, nay hope, this is what they end up doing.

  2. AlfieJr

    Mr wolf is looking in the right direction, but fails to see the Big Thing headed this way just a month or so down that path: wireless iPad screen mirroring via Apple TV in iOS 5.

    that immediately puts EVERYTHING you can watch and do on your iPad onto your HDTV, effortlessly. some stuff won’t translate well of course, but a lot will. and then developers will create more stuff/apps specifically for this. some might run on the ATV itself, like Netflix, but for the user it will just work like one more iPad app.

    you can already control your TiVo and cable box with iPad apps now too. the only thing you can’t do – yet – is switch HDTV inputs between sources.

    this is how living room integration and merger of devices will happen. Google’s “do search on your TV” concept was hopelessly clumsy. but uniting your TV and iPad with a far easier and more powerful UI – Ah!

    of course, Google will copy this as fast as it can.

    • Hantu13

      I think you’re right. Imagine if Apple would give away the appletv with an iPhone 5, Mac or iPad purchase. Or more likely, cut the cost to something ridiculous like $25..

      The key is to have the right licenses in place with content owners. None of them want to recreate the iTunes fiasco with video..

      That and bandwidth caps are the big obstacle here..

    • cabdriverjim

      I have a Logitech Revue, Logitech Harmony remote, Android phones and a DLNA server for storage. I have to say its fabulous. The inclusion of the full keyboard instead of a clunky remote is brilliant. Its really everything I’ve ever hoped for in a home theater. And it has a full Chrome browser that’s actually usable on a TV. More more typing in T9 or some made up nonsense numberpad format. It takes me seconds to find a movie on Netflix or wherever with a real keyboard where I’d previously spend minutes trying to type on my Bluray player’s clunky remote.

  3. It’s amazing to read these types of analyses of Google’s various products and services. Tech bloggers and analysts seem to think Google doesn’t know what it is doing. Google has always been very clear about two things when it comes to its products and services:

    1. They favor the release early and release often approach.

    2. They are not afraid of products failing. They are not afraid of ignoring the sunk costs, no matter how high and killing products when they don’t work out.

    Seen in this light, Google is doing exactly what it wants to do with Google TV. It is well aware of all the main points written in this article, including: “The company needs to think about the long game, understanding that the market wasn’t ready for the winner-take-all strategy with its disappointing 1.0 edition.”

    Don’t you think that if Google really was aiming for a ‘winner-take-all’ strategy with 1.0 edition of the product, they would put in a tad more resources into the engineering and marketing of the product? There is nothing to indicate that Google was aiming for ‘winner-take-all’ with the first iteration. Therefore, the claim that ‘Google went too big too soon’ with Google TV is simply not true.

    • @A S – Not sure where you get I don’t think Google doesn’t know what it’s doing. I think they, actually, know what exactly they’re doing in their approach, but there is a downside to failing too much and too often in the living room: consumers and partners lose confidence. Look at the Microsoft Media Center Extenders -there probably isn’t a CE company out there that would stick their neck out again on another Microsoft “experiment”. Like Google TV, MCX’s were ahead of their time.

      Now, I also think Google iterates faster and smarter than Microsoft, and that’s why I say above they’ll eventually get it right. The risk, again, is losing the confidence of hardware partners and the consumer.

      • I agree with the post above that Google didn’t try a winner-takes-all strategy from the beginning. They just put it out there, more or less. But I also think they shouldn’t have done that. As you say, potential customers and hardware partners might lose trust in that product, and will not be willing to spend hundreds of dollars on it next time. It’s one thing to release a buggy online service for free, and makes it great 1-2 years later, and it’s another thing to spend $300 on a product that doesn’t work properly from day one.

        Google needs to “get” this.

      • Amazing but true – Google never figured out who makes the (ad) dollar from Google TV. To me, this is the crux of the failure. Yes, the UI sucks. The logitech and sony devices will take you to the summer of 69, the content wasn’t exciting etc etc…but if Google had only paid attention to dollar trajectory, a whole lot of the rest of the stuff would have fallen in place.

        I couldn’t agree more on the “losing confidence” at CE cos.

  4. Let’s get this straight:

    1) Going after “Input 1” is dumb. It’s never happening. Aside from the fact that people don’t replace their TVs often enough to get the kind of installed base Android could get, the MSOs control the boxes. Ask Tivo. It’s been more than a decade. Headway much? Uh no. No one wants boxes. Stop building boxes.

    The only boxes that have gotten any traction at all are either:

    a) game consoles, which now run most of America’s Netflix — hint hint
    b) simple stuff like Roku and AppleTV, which are noise in the grand scheme of things but are cheap, easy, and, um, MOSTLY RUN NETFLIX

    2) People do not want keyboards in the living room. I’m sorry if you, dear reader, does want one. You are not the mainstream and your opinion is irrelevant. The idea that trying to get large numbers of people to accept either the giant Revue keyboard or the insane-looking Sony GoogleTV keyboard was ever going to work makes me wonder how this is the same company that designed such an amazing phone navigation app on their first try. It really does.

  5. Keyboards don’t work. I think Google should “allow” only 2 methods of input: virtual apps and voice control.

    The voice control one is straight-forward, and Google already has great technology for it. You should be able to control Google TV through voice.

    Now the virtual apps method. I’m not sure if remotes as virtual apps are that useful since you have to look at the screen, unlike with a real remote where you can just feel the buttons and look at the TV. Therefore, I think they need to show the Google TV interface on the phone or tablet’s display. This way you see exactly what you see on the TV screen, and you can directly manipulate the interface by touching the elements on the screen. Select something with your phone, then leave it aside and watch it on the TV. Simple.

    I think Google should make these the default input methods, but there’s another one they can make as optional input method, and that is for people with webcams for their TV’s (for video-chatting on the TV or whatever), they can enable Kinect-style interaction. This isn’t necessary right way, but it’s something they can think about in the next year or so.

    • Those were clearly in the “skunkworks” category for Google. Android, Google TV, Google+ were corporate wide initiatives were they went all in and there was (and is) no doubt about their long term commitment.

      • Android was done by a quite small team kept separate from the main Google engineering organization. (We even had our own hiring process to not take candidates from regular Google hiring.) Google TV I can assure is not a “corporate wide initiative.”

      • @Dianne – Let me put it another way. When Android launched, there was no doubt about the long-term commitment from Google. Same with Google+. Google TV feels to me like a long-term commitment.

        Here’s one good way to tell whether Google is here to stay in a particular segment with a particular product launch: addressable market size from an advertising $ standpoint. There’s no bigger ad market than TV.

        Google TV isn’t going anywhere.

  6. brown_te

    @Michael – I don’t quite follow. What *specifically* about the Google TV hardware proves they they over-reached compared to the Apple and Roku hardware?

    @James – everything you said about Google copying/buying innovative companies can historically be said about Microsoft (extensively) and Apple (occaisionally)

    • @brown-te: What “proves” it is they tried to basically do everything w/version 1, and it was a cluttered mess. Apple and Roku started simpler (and at lower pricing), both with much more intuitive interfaces (physical and UI), and they in turn have done better (and better is, of course, relative, as the goals for both were fairly modest to begin with).

    • James Hancock

      Microsoft pays for the patents when they do. Either in court or before that and doesn’t complain that they just got busted.

      Same with Apple.

      And both do innovative things even when they intentionally or unintentionally use someone else’s ideas. WP7 is a unique and new approach. Iphone same thing, Ipad same thing.

      Android is a rehash of what others have already done. There is nothing innovative about it. It’s a copy. Yes it’s a copy of multiple other players in the cell phone market, but it’s a copy none-the-less. There is nothing unique or innovative about it.

  7. James Hancock

    What actually happened is this:

    1. Apple TV is a work in progress. It hasn’t been finished.
    2. Microsoft’s big play with the xbox is a work in progress and is not yet finished.
    3. Roku and others are half-assed.
    4. Tivo is patented up like crazy and has already handed others their ass in court.


    1. Google can’t steal anything useful from Apple.
    2. Google can’t steal anything useful from Microsoft.
    3. Google can’t steal anything useful from Tivo.
    4. There’s no one else out there that Google can buy or steal from.

    Thus since Google doesn’t have original ideas, Google TV is a mess of half-finished ideas from others mashed together into an even less finished product that clearly feels half-finished and unready and people respond to that with discomfort.

    Rest assured: Once someone else does it right, Google will copy it and do it even more right and even bigger and better engineered.

    1. Apple creates amazing things that get even more amazing after customers feedback and Apple pretends to ignore them and claim that Steve has all of the ideas while implementing their ideas.

    2. Microsoft gets it right the 3rd time because they listen to too many people internally and externally so it comes out as a Frankenstein the first time with the ideas not complete or key things left out because they didn’t know what to prioritize until customers use it and complain.

    3. Small shops occasionally hit home runs.

    4. Google? They buy the small shops that hit the home runs, or they wait for someone else to innovate and steal what they’ve built…. and then whine when the courts force them to pay up for their theft.

    And this isn’t unique. Google has the same problem with absolutely every thing they do. They’re an engineering company. They have incredibly gifted engineers. But what they don’t have is architects or creative designers. And man it shows. From product developments and failures to patent lawsuits handing them their ass, it’s all the same. Google is the house of 0 innovation, lots of copying and really really really great infrastructure to be able to build it out big.

    • Andrew MacDonald

      This has got to be one of the most accurate comments I’ve read about Google for a while.

      I do actually admire Google in a lot of respects, they were the ‘cool’ kids of Silicon Valley a few years ago, but over the last 4/5 years they have gotten lazy, and the sad fact of the matter is, they have blatently stolen ideas from other companies and tried passing them off as their own. I have nothing against Google, I want them to succeed, but I want them to succeed on THEIR OWN merit, not that of their competitors after they stole their ideas.

    • “1. Apple creates amazing things that get even more amazing after customers feedback and Apple pretends to ignore them and claim that Steve has all of the ideas while implementing their ideas.”

      What are you talking about? The new Apple TV is just a Roku box with an Apple logo on it. How is this creating amazing things?

      And when did people get so enamored with software patents?
      Hasn’t it been pretty well established within the tech community that software patents are bad?
      What’s next, a love letter to DRM or the RIAA?

    • You’re forgetting that Apple hasn’t made a good product in a decade.

      You’re also forgetting that a top tier android phone is infinitely superior to the iphone

      • James Hancock

        Um no. My wife’s Droid X2 is slow as sh*t and gets slower if some program hogs the processor randomly because of the way that Android does multi-tasking. She can’t understand it and uses about 10% of it. When she was on an Iphone she didn’t have these problems.

        She played with my WP7 the other day and loved it and was actually able to understand how it works, and loved the constant speed. Now she’s whining for one.

        At least WP7 and WM6 before it were unique and different at their time. Iphone was taking it to the next level and had lots of innovations to justify it. Ipad, same thing. Android? Copy of everyone else’s ideas with 0 innovation (hence why the multitasking is so bad)

    • Douglas Bolster

      Totally agree with all that, especially microsoft products being crapified by commitee. I don’t know what they are thinking but they do this every time.