Google has built Android into the dominant platform for smartphones and tablets, but other markets have proven more elusive -- none more so than the living room. Google has made multiple attempts to get on the biggest screen in your house, learning a bit more from each try. The just-announced Android TV platform is the culmination of all that success and failure (mostly failure). If Mountain View did things right, it will avoid the missteps of Google TV and leverage the strengths of Chromecast, but the future is still uncertain, and Google has a lot to prove.
A History of Failure
Google's first real swing at the living room was Google TV, which was announced way back in 2010 as a Honeycomb-based platform for set-top boxes and smart TVs. There were issues right from the start, due largely to the incomplete state of the software. Google chose to launch the first wave of devices (from OEMs like Logitech and Sony) without the Play Store (still Android Market in those days). Instead, Google TV relied on the browser and a few built-in apps like Netflix.
The embedded GTV browser was supposed to simply allow users to stream content from Hulu and other streaming platforms, but it turns out content owners didn't much care for that idea. The Google TV user agent was quickly blacklisted by virtually every streaming provider and network. Google should have seen that coming -- these services wanted to sell people premium services for TV streaming. It took almost a year after launch for the Android Market update to come along, but the software was still based on the archaic Honeycomb release of Android, and performance was severely lacking. A later update to Ice Cream Sandwich did nothing to salvage Google's living room hopes.
Nobody bought Google TV devices, and OEMs mostly abandoned the platform. There are still a few floating around on discount, but Google too has moved on. At Google I/O 2012, Google unveiled the Nexus Q streaming device. Unlike Google TV, this tiny sphere was designed to connect with a phone or tablet and stream Google Play content to a TV. Google had just started ramping up its music and video offerings, so the Q made some sense in that respect. However, the $299 price and limited (Google Play only) functionality was a sticking point. The device was never really released--pre-orders were fulfilled, but no one was charged. The Nexus Q was abandoned, and with good reason.
Google's First TV Success
Last year Google tried its hand at TV again, but with a much more modest product -- the Chromecast. Despite the Chrome monicker, this device is running a stripped down version of Android. Rather than try to design a new content ecosystem right off the bat, Google leveraged the success of Android apps and Google Play to get content on the Chromecast, and it was a hit.
Google didn't have to do any of the hard work of supporting content on the dongle -- developers took the lead and have made that device a success. The Chromecast itself is just a dumb receiver, but it was a very smart idea.
Content owners were much more comfortable with this model because it allowed them to control access via their pre-existing apps. Consumers were down with Chromecast because it was only $35 (and sometimes even cheaper now). At that price, it didn't matter that there were only a handful of apps supported at launch. When the SDK was finally opened up, developers could easily add Chromecast streaming support to apps.
How Android TV is Different
So now we come to Google's latest TV effort. At first glance, Android TV seems to share a lot of traits with Google TV -- it relies on OEMs to make boxes and smart TVs, it has a full 10-foot interface, and it runs a tweaked version of Android. It's a little worrisome to see Google moving back to a more complex TV model after having success with the Chromecast, but the company has something it didn't have in 2010 -- content.
Android TV will launch with a fair number of streaming services built-in, but it's also going to have access to Google's own Play Store listings. This is considerably better than what Google offered in the days of Google TV and the Nexus Q. Most movies, TV series, and albums are available for rental or purchase in Google Play -- plus there's the All Access music service. Android TV will do more things out of the box than Google TV ever did. Because really… it was insane that Google TV didn't have the Android Market for almost a year.
Google isn't giving up on the Chromecast, though. Android TV devices will support all the apps built for the Chromecast, instantly giving it access to a huge selection of content without developers even lifting a finger. So what does Google TV add to the experience that makes it a worthwhile upgrade to a Chromecast? First off, it will have Google voice search built-in to make it easier to find content, a bit like the Amazon Fire TV. Another thing Android TV is going to have in common with Fire TV is gaming, but it'll be done through Google Play.
Google's developer kit for Android TV came with a controller and support for full-scale games designed for the platform or just enhanced versions of existing ones with "second-screen" functionality on your mobile device. Boxes like the Fire TV and Ouya have been interesting attempts at a viable micro-console (Amazon is probably closest), but if you're an Android user, you likely have a lot of money invested in the Play Store. Android TV gives you access to all that without re-buying anything. The first round of hardware later this year will include ARM chips like the Nvidia Tegra K1, which we're told will be fabulous for gaming.
Of course, developers will have to get behind Android TV, but Google isn't leaving that to chance this time. Even with only a developer kit in the wild for I/O attendees, Mountain View has developers updating games with support for Android TV. Gaming might actually be Android TV's killer feature.
There are still plenty of ways Android TV could go wrong. The first round of hardware from companies like Sony, Razor, and Asus might be too expensive, for example. Google might also have trouble convincing developers to support the platform in any meaningful way. Having all those Chromecast apps is a nice way to make Android TV more attractive and useful at launch, but it needs to do a lot more than a $35 HDMI stick can do. Still, Google has learned the hard way the living room is tough to crack, and it's putting its full weight behind Android TV. We'll find out how it works out when Android TV launches this fall alongside Android L.