Why Google Won't Conquer TV Anytime Soon


If ever.

Just look at TiVo: The company has had 10 years to build on DVR, hands-down most awesome interactive TV application of all time, and spent millions of R&D dollars over much of that time researching exactly what people want to do with their TVs. TiVo has crammed a bunch of Internet content, advertising, advanced search features and widgets into its boxes. And it’s teamed up with the biggest TV distributors on the planet to carry its product (Comcast, DirecTV).

And… TiVo is steadily losing customers. By the thousands. In spite of having one of the best TV user interfaces around (see TiVo Subscriber Losses Accelerate In 2009).

Now comes Google. The Internet giant is reportedly working with Intel, Sony and Logitech to bring a version of its Android operating system, originally designed for mobile phones, to Internet-connected TVs, set-tops and Blu-ray Disc players (according to The New York Times, followed by The Wall Street Journal’s me-too story). Details are sketchy but apparently the idea is the Google-based CE devices would serve as a platform for apps developers.

Google is already testing out the Android-based set-tops with Dish Network, according to a previous WSJ item (see Dish Dabbles With Google-Powered Internet Set-Tops).

Can Google succeed where TiVo has struggled mightily and, so far, failed to turn the corner?

What, really, does Google bring to the table aside from a $180 billion market cap? Search expertise, obviously, but searching for stuff you want to watch on TV is fundamentally different from searching for information on the Web.

The other issue: What people want to do with a TV set, now and for the foreseeable future, is watch TV — not post to Twitter or access Gmail or whatever.

The FCC, as part of the National Broadband Plan, is proposing to subsidize the entry of Google and others into the TV business. The agency wants to force pay-TV providers within three years to provide a limited-function IP video “gateway” or equivalent to all subscribers that would let, say, a Google-enabled television access live channels (see FCC Wants Its ‘Stupid’ Gateway Everywhere Starting in 2013). To me, that’s an indirect tax on all cable, satellite and telco subscribers that primarily will further the business goals of companies like Google and Sony.

But if things go according to plan, presto! Google would (theoretically) be able to front-end TV, the way it has front-ended the Web, and sell ads against TV programming.

That’s the idea, anyway. We’ll see how this all plays out. TiVo is a cautionary indicator that establishing — and keeping — a foothold in the living room is extremely difficult.