Android TV: It’s what Google TV should have been, but is that enough?

Android TV

The people tasked with developing Google’s new Android TV product think that this time, time is on their side.

Four years ago, the company made its first big foray into the living room. Google TV was supposed to combine online video with live TV and become a leading software platform for TV manufacturers. But the failure of Google TV is well documented; why would the company try again, as it did Wednesday with the introduction of its new Android TV platform?

“It’s the UX (user experience), it’s the framework, it’s the timing,” said Android Senior Engineering Director Dave Burke when asked that very question during an interview on the sidelines of Google’s I/O developer conference in San Francisco Wednesday.

A simpler UI, and a better way to build TV apps

He pointed to Android TV’s much simpler and more defined user interface, as well as the integration of Google Search and content recommendations that make for a better experience than on Google TV. Android TV’s interface greets users with content recommendations based on the apps they use the most, and allows them to directly jump to a movie or TV show from a card-based search interface.

“We learned a lot from Google TV,” said Burke, and one of those lessons was that it needs to be easier for developers to build apps that work on the TV screen. Android TV also aims to simplify just that through a framework called Leanback, which I wrote about back in May, and which was internally known as Pano.

Developers that don’t want to bother with designing an entire TV-optimized app UI from scratch can instead use simple templates to create customizable user interfaces with little effort. Music service TuneIn used Leanback to make its Android app work on Android TV within a week before Google I/O. TED also used Leanback to build its app, and the Android TV team hopes that it will help other Android developers to quickly launch their apps on the platform as well.

A whole new set of devices

And that is where the timing comes into play. Remember, Android was in a very different place back when Google TV launched in 2010.

Back then, Android was still primarily a mobile phone operating system, and Android-based tablets were struggling to take off. That’s why Google at the time decided to basically fork Android to build Google TV. “Google TV was sort of an add-on” to Android, said Burke. That made development of Google TV apps more complicated, and slowed down the overall progress of Google TV.

Fast forward four years, and Android TV is part of Android proper; the “L” release, to be precise, which was previewed at I/O Wednesday. This should help to bring the latest apps onto the platform, and a big focus of those efforts is on Android games, which also just were in their infancy four years ago.

Google wants to take many of those casual Android mobile games and make them work on the TV screen, and execs told me Wednesday that they envision an entire new category of devices that will be based on Android TV. Not only will the platform power smart TVs and Roku-like companion boxes as well as pay TV set-top boxes, but also lightweight game consoles — think of it as Google’s answer to Ouya. Google struck a partnership with NVIDIA to power these kinds of devices, and some of them could be available in time for the holiday season.

Still lots of open questions

Android TV does look promising, and it could potentially fill a gap for TV manufacturers that don’t have the talent or the desire to develop their own smart TV system. However, there are still plenty of open questions:

The price to end users. One of the issues that doomed Google TV was its price. Companion devices initially cost as much as $250, and TVs featuring Google TV were sold at a premium as well. Google went the other way with its $35 Chromecast streaming stick, and sold more in months than all of Google TVs partners sold in years.

Android TV will require steeper minimum specs from hardware manufacturers to ensure that gaming works, but Burke seemed confident that a TV companion box could be available for as little as $99. More powerful gaming devices could be below or around $200, he mused, while cautioning that pricing obviously depends on many factors, and will ultimately be decided by the device manufacturers.

The influence of Chromecast. Google executives went to great lengths Wednesday to show that Chromecast and Android TV are complementary efforts. Android TV devices will be the first hardware products that support Google Cast, the underlying technology that makes Chromecast work. “I’m really happy that we have Google Cast,” said Burke, adding that Chromecast had set the bar for simplicity. Still, consumers not interested in gaming may decide not to buy a $99 Android TV box if they can get a $35 Chromecast instead.

The challenge of live TV. Google TV was ambitious in part because it tried to integrate with live TV feeds from TV service providers. However, the actual implementation was clunky at best, and partnerships with TV manufacturers fell far short of expectations. Android TV also integrates with live TV, but only when it is embedded in a TV set — stand-alone boxes likely won’t have any kind of HDMI pass-through.

The big question is whether Google can get access to live TV through other means. Android TV manager Chris McKillop said that the company had internally been experimenting with what he called virtual tuners. One app build for testing purposes apparently used a TV feed from a HD Homerun device.

A more consumer-friendly approach could be if Google was to offer its own internet-based live TV service, just like Sony set out to do. Executives didn’t want to comment on Google’s ambitions in this space, and said that they decided to build a technology that can be used in many different ways as business models evolve. “Our focus is very much on the platform right now,” said Burke.

Pressure from competitors. On the surface, Android TV looks very much like Amazon’s Fire TV. Not only do both use a similar UI and navigation scheme, the combination of gaming with media apps also should give some consumers pause come next holiday season. So why buy Android TV devices over Fire TV, or devices from other manufacturers for that matter? Burke’s answer was to point to the ecosystem approach, which could lead to a wide variety of devices for consumers with different needs.

But competitors are obviously not standing still, and there are a number of new entrants. Just in the last few days, news broke that a new hardware manufacturer dubbed Abitcool is building a Chromecast-like streaming stick based on Firefox OS with some help from Mozilla. Asked about that product, Chromecast VP Mario Queiroz simply said that competition is a good thing:

“The market that we are going in is equal to the number of TVs in broadband households. Competition is helping to develop that market.”

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