Google (S GOOG) is about to open up another front in the war for your living room: The company is set to announce the launch of Android TV at its Google I/O developer conference in San Francisco in June, according to multiple sources familiar with Google’s plans.
Android TV won’t be another device, but rather a platform that manufacturers of TVs and set-top boxes can use to bring streaming services to the television. In that way, it is similar to Google TV, the platform the company unveiled at its 2010 Google I/O conference. But while Google TV was focused on marrying existing pay TV services with apps, Android TV will at least initially be all about online media services and Android-based video games.
Google has been talking to a number of media services about participating on Android TV in recent months, and it is expected that the usual suspects, including Netflix(S NFLX) and Hulu Plus, all are going to be available at launch. The company is likely also going to announce a few select hardware partners, which could have devices running Android TV available in the coming months.
Android TV’s secret weapon: Pano
Android TV’s key focus will be on simplicity, which will be reflected in the user interface. Key to that is something the company has internally been calling Pano. The idea behind Pano is that apps can surface individual pieces of content right on the home screen in a card-like fashion so that users can browse movies, TV shows and other types of media as soon as they turn on an Android TV.
Content will be presented in a series of cards that can be browsed horizontally, and each movie or TV show episode has deep links into publisher’s apps, giving users the option to start playback right away. That’s different from the traditional smart TV experience, where users generally first have to launch an app from a publisher, and then browse that apps catalog before they can play a title.
As I first reported in April, Android TV originally had an even more radical vision, which would have potentially done away with app user interfaces completely. Publishers would have instead used data feeds displayed via slightly customizable templates, leading to an experience in which apps would have more felt like content directories than disparate experiences with differing user interfaces.
Back in April, I reported that some app publishers apparently weren’t too happy with that idea, despite Google’s assurance that users could always switch to a native app view. At this point, it’s unclear how much of that original vision has survived in the version of Android TV we are going to see next month, but it looks like the original vision of Pano will live on at least for Google’s own movies and TV show catalog. A recently-leaked changelog file for the upcoming version Android 4.4.3 contains plenty of references to Pano, including some that suggest that Google will pull in Rotten Tomatoes ratings and other data to include on movie details pages.
We got a first preview of how Pano is going to look like in April, when the Verge published an internal document about Android TV in April that showed mocked-up screenshots consisting of a cards-based UI with a focus on content, and not apps. I’ve been told that this is largely consistent with what Google is going to announce next month. The look and feel of the UI will be similar to that of Amazon’s(s amzn) Fire TV, including a heavy focus on gaming, I have been told.
Why Google wants yet another platform
The big, obvious question about Android TV is: Why would Google do this? The company failed when it tried a similar platform approach with Google TV, and landed a success when it launched its Chromecast streaming stick last summer. Google still hasn’t provided any concrete numbers, but executives have said that the company has sold millions of Chromecasts, which is significantly more than Google TV’s hardware partners ever sold. Chromecast also has support from most major, and a growing number of smaller content publishers, and Google has said that it wants to get consumer electronics manufacturers to add cast capabilities to their own devices in the near future. So why would Google launch yet another, seemingly competing product?
There are two answers to this question. One is strategic, one is political. At Google I/O, you are likely going to hear the first one, which goes a bit like this: Chromecast is a great, inexpensive device for consumers that want to use their mobile devices to launch content on their TV. But due to its aggressively priced, limited hardware, it’s not capable of everything.
Gaming in paticular will never be its strong suit, and a more powerful device capable of running full Android apps, as opposed to the web apps that power Chromecast, could help to capture a market of casual gamers that aren’t willing to spend $500 for a next-generation game console, but still want to be able to play games that are at least as good as those on their tablet. Think of it as an Ouya done right, or as an attempt to steal some of Fire TV’s thunder. Plus there are arguably consumers that do want a real remote control, and navigate menus on screen — so why should Google leave those consumers up for grabs, and cede them to competitors like Roku and Apple(s AAPL)?
Android TV: The Android team’s answer to Google TV
There is another reason Google has been working on Android TV, and it has a lot to do with corporate politics. Google TV launched in 2010 as a new product that was based on Android, but beyond that didn’t share a whole lot with the company’s Android team. Google TV was based on Honeycomb, the branch of Android that briefly powered Google’s first foray into the tablet space, and it was developed by a team that was physically and organizationally separate from the main Android team.
I have been told by a source familiar with these discussions that there was some growing discontent between the Android team and the Google TV team as the latter floundered, which is why the Android team began to work on its own media player. These efforts were initially run by the media team within the Android@Home team, which also worked on the quickly-killed Nexus Q media player.
The Google TV team on the other hand started to work more closely with the Chrome team, began to add a full version of Chrome to Google TV, and briefly envisioned a version of Google TV that was largely based on Chrome and web apps. That vision evolved to eventually become Chromecast, which was developed by a team of folks coming from both the Chrome and Google TV teams.
At the same time, the Android team was busy developing its own device. Then-Android chief Andy Rubin reportedly showed partners a set-top box running Android with a focus on gaming at CES in 2013, and I have heard that the company intended to ship a version of that device late last year, but decided to scrap these efforts at the last minute.
Along the way, Google decided to merge Google TV with Android, and when Chromecast took off, it sealed the fate of Google TV: The company quietly got rid of the brand, opened up Android and Google apps for consumer electronics manufacturers, and decided to give the whole platform play another try with Android TV.
Google’s challenge is to win over consumer electronics manufacturers
Of course, a lot has changed at Google since the Android team started to work on Android TV. Most notably, Andy Rubin has moved on to other projects, and Chrome czar Sundar Pichai is now also in charge of Android. With Pichai at the helm, Google may actually have a chance to have its two TV projects work together, to a point where they are complementary, not competing. A first indicator for this: The aforementioned leaked Android changelog also contains references that suggest that Android TV will be Google Cast-capable. This means that users will be able to cast their content to an Android TV device, just like they can do with Chromecast today, or pick up the remote for a more immersive browsing experience.
The big question is whether Google will get consumer electronics manufacturers to support this vision. The failure of Google TV cost the company a lot of goodwill, but the success of Chromecast may have made up for at least some of that.
I haven’t been able to confirm which hardware companies are going to be part of the launch announcement, but a look at Google’s previous TV hardware partners offers us some clues: LG, which produced a number of Google TV-powered smart TV sets, has since launched its own webOS-based smart TV platform, so it’s unlikely that the company would join Google this time around. Long-time Google TV partner Sony (S SNE) on the other hand doesn’t have its own platform, which would make it a more likely candidate. Vizio could also once again join Google, and Chinese manufacturers like Haier may be interested in partnering as well.
In the end, Google has at least one thing going for Android TV: There aren’t a whole lot of good alternatives. Roku, Opera and a few others all are trying to establish their TV platforms as de-facto industry standards, but none of them have jaw-dropping features that would help a TV manufacturer to compete with the likes of Samsung and LG. Meanwhile, game consoles still sell like hotcakes, and Amazon isn’t waiting around. That means that for some hardware vendors, Android TV may just be what they’ve been waiting for.
Google didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.