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Mixed Signals

Google TV: Big Name, Not-So-Big Service?

7/28/2013 4:12 PM

 

At its core, San Mateo, Calif.-headquartered Google, and its Google TV service, resemble those of almost every other new media/online/Over-The-Top/broadband/streaming video provider I have written about during the past seven months (see, Mixed Signals  for a listing of stories about Microsoft, Apple, Vudu, Hulu, Netflix,  Amazon, and Intel).

That is, the folks at Google are trying a lot of moves to get in early -- and effectively -- on the phenomenon that involves new forms of video making it in new ways into people’s homes and everywhere else on every kind of device.    

Moreover, for those who spend more than just a few minutes studying it, Google’s GoogleTV has little problem truly differentiating itself in some core areas of business development. That is because of its remarkable brand name recognition (who doesn’t recognize, mostly in a positive way, the moniker “Google”?), and remarkably deep pockets (it’s a company whose recent Wall Street valuation of its common stock value estimates $303 billion).

In addition, as opposed to bitter rival AppleTV (Google TV’s technology is based on an “open” platform, and therefore accessible to a remarkably large constituency. A competitive service like AppleTV, on the other hand, requires users to sign up for, and on to, an expensive technology platform, thus immediately limiting its access and usability.

That said, why is GoogleTV still relatively unknown, and why is it still struggling?

Strengths

A recent announcement of an alliance between Time Warner (TW) and AppleTV to offer users enhanced access to TW’s content warehouse, is a positive sign for all such new media/online/OTT/broadband/streaming providers, especially inasmuch as TW did the same deal months ago with Microsoft for the Xbox platform. Thus, it may not be too far down the line for a similar TW-GoogleTV deal. In short, the momentum toward more content for new media/online/OTT/broadband/streaming providers is very slowly, but very surely, growing. And that is news.    

Adding games is another “content plus” that many observers are predicting will add measureable value and creditability to the GoogleTV franchise. Indeed, to go head-to-head with a Microsoft Xbox, it is hard to imagine any new media/online/OTT/broadband/streaming provider, including GoogleTV, progressing handily without a robust gaming capability. 

Another recent development includes the BIG (make that a capital B – I – G) announcement last week involving a new flashdrive-like 2”-long external “stick,” currently costing $30-35 at retail, which inserts into the open HDMI port on the side of most HDTVs. The new device, titled ChromeCast, acts as a mini version of a set-top box, in that it collects a Wi-fi signal – in this case from a nearby device, be it a smart phone, laptop, or tablet -- and then streams, or “pushes” that content via one’s Wi-fi connection, into a TV in the home’s living room or elsewhere.

It is hard to imagine a scenario where this technological leap by Google will not do a lot of good for GoogleTV and its future growth. Indeed, initial reviews by experts in the space – including this author – have been quite favorable, if for no other reasons than 1) the quality of new apps that are included, 2) the other devices ChromeCast accesses (including Apple’s iPhone), and 3) the mere simplicity of the device and how it operates to solve such a big problem in the incredibly challenging world of new media/online/OTT/broadband/streaming (i.e., getting streaming media on to the traditional TV). Google’s stated goals for ChromeCast: a device 1) with little or no set-up time, 2) a minimal learning curve, and 3) that works with most, if not eventually all, devices and platforms.

In addition, on a technology-development level, GoogleTV has -- like most of its peers -- been very aggressively courting a good many TV manufacturers, and getting them to have the GoogleTV capability factory-installed into the TVs of the future (AKA: smart TVs). The GoogleTV website currently includes Vizio and LG among the quite well-known names of TV builders, also known as Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs), which offer GoogleTV pre-loaded as software into their TV sets.  

Moreover, again like the other players in the same world of new media/online/OTT/broadband/streaming, GoogleTV does not just require that a consumer buy a new TV set in order to get GoogleTV. Instead, consumers can also purchase a small set-top box that picks up the home’s Internet signal, and conveys it via a wire into the existing TV set. On its website, GoogleTV calls these “buddy” devices, and lists LG, Vizio, Sony, NetGear, Asus, and Hisense among those OEMs that offer the GoogleTV STB.  

Other strengths GoogleTV can list include an ability to expand globally, based upon many of the factors listed above. It currently offers GoogleTV in the U.S., and GoogleTV movies in U.K., Canada, France, Spain, Australia, Italy, Japan, and South Korea.

Plus, perhaps as important as any potential positive in the GoogleTV repertoire, is its place within the greater Google ecosystem. This means that GoogleTV has designs to be a better part of the Google Android technology, which as noted above, is a near-universal platform. The ability to market internationally to 500 million Android devices and Google Internet users comes with that platform, plus Google has 90 million Google+ users, and Android has almost 75% of the worldwide smart phone market share. Furthermore, GoogleTV can connect customers’ mobile GooglePlay content to the big screen via GoogleTV devices.

GoogleTV further offers sales and cloud storage for customers’ GooglePlay content, i.e., music, books, movies and TV shows, in a single locker across all Android-supported devices and on Google.com. Add to that the potential backing of the Google-owned YouTube’s almost 150 million monthly viewers, and there are certainly some big bricks in the foundation of the building that will one day likely become a big city version of GoogleTV.

Challenges

One company The Carmel Group has followed closely for decades is Echostar (via its original Dish service, and more recently via the two subsidiaries of the EchoStar parent, i.e., Dish Network, traded on NASDAQ as Dish, and EchoStar, traded on NASDAQ as SATS). GoogleTV’s 22010 announcement of an alliance between Dish Network and GoogleTV has seen that partnership flatten, if for no other reason  than the fact that although GoogleTV remains compatible with Dish's older model 622 and 722 advanced STBs, GoogleTV is not compatible with Dish's hot-selling Hopper model STB. Indeed, Dish is the only major pay TV provider with whom GoogleTV currently partners.

GoogleTV has also had problems itself with simplicity, past users having complained a great deal about difficult set-up procedures and complicated remote controls. The resulting user experience has been perceived by far too many GoogleTV users as having been confusing and cluttered.

In addition, the GoogleTV service and product has been limited to Google.com and Android smart devices. Plus, the GooglePlay app hasn’t been available on other operating smart devices, e.g., Blue Ray players, smart TVs, and iTunes.  

Moreover, ultimately, perhaps GoogleTV’s greatest obstacle thus far has been the parent company’s failure to exhibit, and delay in having, a solid and clear picture as to how and where GoogleTV fits into the Google/Android strategy. The negative PR about service and devices is reflective of that. The end result of the past three or so years is that GoogleTV has almost no mass market awareness.

And one downside note about ChromeCast: The remarkable device happens to only work with a few specific applications, so, for now, that means only Netflix, Chrome, GooglePlay, and GoogleMusic. Thus, this means several of its competitors can now offer a richer content ecosystem, with lots more as and thus titles. Also on the “available content” side, TV shows, movies, and other video stored on your device are not accessible, meaning only the same content accessed from the cloud will light up your TV screen.

Connection problems (between the ChromeCast stick and the smart phone, tablet, or other device) have also been reported. Plus, for some, the requirement of connecting the ChromeCast stick to an outside electrical power source will prove challenging.

Other

Pricing of core GoogleTV content remains generally consistent with that of iTunes and Amazon, yet GoogleTV has been a price leader when it comes to purchasing of multiple titles. GoogleTV’s recent library listings include new releases in HD at $19.99, and new releases in standard definition (SD) at $14.99-$9.99. Older, or “catalogue,” HD items carry tags of $19.99-$14.99, and SD catalogue items are charged at $14.99-$6.99.

Summary

Just as there is an awful lot to strive for (and an awful lot to achieve) in this new business of new media/online/OTT/broadband/streaming, so, too, is it extremely tough to develop the right mix. The GoogleTV experience clearly reveals this dilemma. In short, even those that one would assume are the very best at their craft, e.g., Google, have faltered significantly in their missions, probably pointing to how difficult the ultimate task is. Importantly, ten years from now, when we look at who remains standing, and who is at the top, this perspective will give us all a greater measure of respect for what they did and just how they struggled to get there.

Jimmy Schaeffler is a telecom author and chairman and CSO of the Carmel-by-the-Sea-based broadcast and pay TV consultancy, The Carmel Group (www.carmelgroup.com).

September