Android TV and the smart TV software ‘have-nots’

For the first five or so years of Android’s life, Google was fairly forgiving when it came to letting system OEMs have their way with the look and feel of devices built on top of the platform. This liberal approach was useful for a time, as it let companies like HTC, Samsung, Amazon and others create products that had distinctly unique user interfaces that they could call their own.

The downside of this approach was a significant amount of fragmentation, where one vendor’s software looked quite a bit different from the other’s.  It also meant that a lot of the actual software wasn’t all that great, often creating sub-par user experiences.

But last week, Google made it very clear that after years of leaving Android’s look and feel open to OEM interpretation, they were going to start running a tighter ship and Android’s days of heavy vendor customization were drawing to a close.

On one hand, this is a good thing.  While some skins like HTC’s Sense UI were fairly good, many of the implementations were not nearly as elegant. And as Android goes from being a software stack that mainly falls into consumer hands in the form of a smartphone to a true multiscreen software framework, prioritizing consistency over customization will be increasingly important.

Here’s how Google engineering director David Burke put it to Ars:

“The UI is more part of the product in this case,” Burke said to Ars of Android TV in particular. “We want to just have a very consistent user experience, so if you have one TV in one room and another TV in another room and they both say Android TV, we want them to work the same and look the same… The device manufacturers can brand it, and they might have services that they want to include with it, but otherwise it should be the same.”

So here we are, on the eve of the relaunch of Google’s TV software stack in the form of Android TV, and the company is taking a hard line with TV OEMs who implement the software, basically telling them “sure, you can put your name on it, maybe emphasize a few buttons, but that’s about it.”

Will the smart TV OEMs be ok with this? Apparently some will, as the company announced that all of Sony’s forthcoming smart TVs will feature Android TV, while Philips and Sharp will also feature the software extensively in new models.

The question has to be asked, however, is why would Sony, which used to be the world’s undisputed leader in consumer electronics, cede control of the look and feel of their new connected TVs to Google with Android?

Well, the answer is fairly straightforward. Sony, while always being a pretty great hardware manufacturer, has never been great at software.  Sure, they have the PS4, which some would say is a pretty powerful software machine, but in reality game consoles are more about what’s under the hood and rely on their software partners to make much of the magic in the form of gaming titles.

In the end, Sony’s decline over the past decade has been in part because they are what you could call a software “have-not”, a company whose strength mainly is in hardware design, not in creating great software. The evidence of this is readily apparent in other areas as well, such as connected stereos (where Sonos has left Sony in the dust), personal audio (iPod, iPhone, anyone?) and many more categories.

Other companies, like Samsung and LG, while not nearly as strong in software as Google, haven’t given up the good fight just yet.  While both companies have not hesitated to experiment with Android in the TV and phone space, they realize that fully putting all their eggs into the Google basket would make them one of the software “have-nots”, something their not ready to do.

Only time will tell if Google wins more and more of the smart TV software market share. Others, like Roku and Opera, offer alternatives to Google, which may be attractive to those smart TV vendors who realize their strength may not be software, but at the same time don’t want to become another member one of the Android TV clone army.