Google (s GOOG) TV is dead, long live Android TV: Three years after launching the first generation of Google TV devices, Google is now looking to rid itself of the brand and realign its smart TV platform efforts more closely with Android. The move is part admission that Google TV failed, part hope that Android will eventually find its place in the living room.
Google apparently isn’t quite ready to announce the switch-over yet; a spokesperson contacted for this story declined to comment. However, an executive from a consumer electronics manufacturer that has been producing Google TV devices confirmed the rebranding in a recent conversation with GigaOM, saying: “They are calling it ‘Android TV.'”
Google’s partners, developers have stopped using the name
Some of Google’s hardware partners have already made the switch. Sony introduced a new smart TV adapter dubbed the Bravia TV stick last month. The device is based on the most recent version of Google TV, but Sony’s announcement didn’t mention that fact once. Jamie Marsh, TV marketing manager for Sony Electronics, was instead quoted saying that the device “brings the full power of Google services to your TV.”
Sony isn’t alone with this kind of wording. Geneva, Switzerland-based chipset manufacturer STMicroelectronics announced support for Google TV products last month, but also refrained from using the brand in its announcement, instead saying that its new SDK “allows the development of Android-compliant devices and supports the latest Google services for TV.” And LG recently showed off some new devices at the IBC in Amsterdam that were described as Android devices with access to “the latest Google services for TV.”
Even members of the original Google TV team have started to drop that name when talking about their work. A recently-scheduled developer event in Seoul was officially called “Android TV Developer Day,” and some developers have started to change affiliations in their online biographies from “Google TV” to “Android TV.”
The use of both “Android TV” and “Google services for TV” suggests that Google may not have finalized the new branding for its TV efforts yet, or that it may use a variety of brands depending on the target audience. It’s unclear when the company is officially going to announce the switch.
TV devices will run the latest version of Android, offer more options
For Google TV, this is more than just a name change. The TV platform was launched three years ago based on Honeycomb, the Android version that also powered Google’s first steps into the tablet world. Google’s latest tablets now run Android 4.3, but Google TV is still stuck on Android version 3.2, which makes it much harder for developers to bring their apps to the TV screen.
Google announced earlier this year that it would update Google TV to the latest version of Android, which would allow developers to use the same APIs available on mobile devices. The upgrade to Android 4.2 was officially announced for Q3, but word is that LG will now update their Google TV devices later this month, with other manufacturers following in the coming months.
Google recently announced the latest version of Android, code-named KitKat, which could be available as early as next week. The company said earlier this year that consumer electronics manufacturers will be able to more easily upgrade their TV hardware to the most recent version of Android after the switch to 4.2, and one should assume that manufacturers will have access to KitKat as soon as it is released for mobile devices.
Of course, when and if devices are going to be upgraded to KitKat depends on each manufacturer, which will apparently have more freedom with other device design choices as well. Originally, Google required device manufacturers to include a full QUERTY keyboard as well as a variety of other hardware specs with each and every Google TV device.
The next generation of Android TV devices running Google services could possibly be a lot more customized, with manufacturers picking and choosing from a range of services and apps. Vizio CTO Matt McRae told us earlier this year already that some future Google TV devices may ditch live TV and look more like a Roku box, and Google’s new approach toward Android on TV seems to make these kinds of devices possible.
Google TV’s long and painful struggle
Google had big ambitions for the living room when it first unveiled Google TV back in 2010, but the first generation of Google TV devices was widely rebuffed by both consumers and content providers. TV viewers didn’t like the complicated set-up and unwieldy keyboards of Google TV devices. Broadcasters didn’t appreciate the idea of consumers being able to watch free web content on their TV sets and started to block Google TV from accessing their websites.
It didn’t exactly help that Google TV was initially based on Intel’s (S INTC) architecture. The chips made Google TV devices a lot more expensive than competing boxes from Roku and Apple, severely impacting sales. Logitech, a manufacturer of a first-generation Google TV companion box, lost millions on its bet on the living room, forcing Logitech CEO Gerald Quindlen to resign.
Google gradually improved the Google TV experience, beefing up voice search and partnering with additional hardware manufacturers, but the platform nonetheless never really caught on with consumers. Neither Google nor its partners ever released any sales numbers, but judging from app install numbers available on Google Play, one can estimate that there are just about 1 million Google TV devices currently in use.
Google already has a winner: Chromecast
So why did Google finally decide to rid itself of the brand? The upgrade to the latest version of Android seems to be the main factor, but chances are that the surprising success of Chromecast made the decision even easier. Google hasn’t said yet how many Chromecast devices it has sold since first introducing the product in July, but anecdotal evidence suggests that sales are going very well: Not only was Chromecast sold out for weeks, it’s currently the number one selling electronics device on Amazon (S AMZN), outselling even Amazon’s new Kindle models, as well as its direct competitors from Apple (s AAPL) and Roku.
But Chromecast isn’t just more successful than Google TV. In many ways, it encapsulates everything Google learned from Google TV’s failures. Consumers and critics mocked the unwieldy remote controls of early Google TV models; Chromecast doesn’t come with a remote at all. Google TV’s early UI seemed too complicated when compared to its competition; Chromecast doesn’t have any UI that has to be navigated on the TV screen. Google TV tried to compete with too many platforms; Chromecast ties in closely with both Android and iOS.
Google has already said that it wants to make the core casting capabilities of Chromecast available to other consumer electronics manufacturers, but it hasn’t said yet when or how this is going to happen. With Google TV being rebranded, I wouldn’t be too surprised if we see Google Casting become just one more Google service for TVs – some of which may even run Android.
Honeycomb image courtesy of Shutterstock user Lev Kropotov.