Google TV, Apple TV, and TiVo: More Than Just Pretty Faces

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The second coming of Apple TV, which began shipping last week, has been followed closely by the re-imaging of Google TV, an announced but not yet operational competitor to both Apple TV and industry stalwart TiVo. While most of the coverage of these devices has focused on content partners and user interface, there are deeper-and perhaps more significant-differences under the hood.

Mobile OS Battle Moves to the Living Room
In one corner of this multi-round bout for domination of the living room sits Android, Google's mobile operating system (OS). Android has seen a marked uptick in usage over the past few months, after the advent of the 2.0 release, and is gaining market share on Apple's iPhone devices.

In the other corner sits the mobile operating system now known as iOS, which powers Apple's iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch, and apparently has a derivative version in the second Apple TV product. News is already spreading of hacks, also known as jailbreaks, that allow iOS 4 to run on the Apple TV, meaning it shares similar software and hardware platform similarities to its mobile and tablet counterparts.

Google already has its own desktop OS, Chromium, which is lightweight enough to qualify as an embedded OS for set-top boxes (STB) and centers on Google's Chrome web browser. Yet, for STBs or other devices that would meet the Google TV hardware specification requirements, the move is more towards Android than it is toward Chromium.

Flash Gets a Boost
The one thing that iOS devices don't play is Flash content, as Apple CEO Steve Jobs has publicly panned the Flash Player as being old and memory intensive.

On the other hand, TiVo's Premiere devices, which are powered by Linux, use Flash player extensively. To make the Flash integration snappy enough to respond the way that previous TiVo interfaces had, TiVo has stated that it doubled the processing power-and one would assume the RAM as well-in the Premiere devices.

Google is also embracing Flash for Google TV: Two requirements of every STB that runs Google TV are the use of Google's web browser and Adobe's latest incarnation of its Flash video player.

"With Google Chrome and Adobe Flash Player 10.1, Google TV lets you access everything on the web," the Google TV site states, meaning everything on the web on your STB-equipped television.

Google's approach to Flash is curious for two reasons: First, Google's WebM video toolkit, based around the VP8 codec, is billed at events like the Open Video Conference as the antithesis of Flash's video playback capability. Second, Flash's interactive capability is being challenged by HTML5's canvas feature, which Google is championing as part of its appeal to the open-source community.

Your Interface or Mine?
At an IBC briefing, TiVo representatives showed off the power of integrating Flash into the TiVo experience. Every third-party service, from Netflix to YouTube, was wrapped in the TiVo interface, so that search, selection, and playback performed consistently between the various options. When asked about the ability to add additional features such as the widgets popular with some internet-equipped TVs, or the applications familiar to mobile OS users, the TiVo representative stated that customers are drawn to TiVo's consistent interface.

Apple TV users also share a consistent interface experience, with the ubiquitous iTunes and slightly less familiar Front Row interface, both of which come standard on Apple's Mac desktops and laptops.

Apple users do not have access to the App Store, but it seems it will be just a matter of time before this happens, whether through jailbreaks or an official Apple approach to apps on Apple TV. Yet it begs the question as to how these apps will need to be modified, since they are designed solely for touch-based interfaces at present.

Google TV will have access to the Android Market from the outset, so that "users can download unique applications to run from their HDTV in the living room" according to the Google TV site.

In addition to the question about application redesign for non-touch devices, Google seems to be caught between two models of interface: the standard web page and a set of modified websites.

"Watch your favorite web videos, view photos, play games, check fantasy scores, chat with friends, and do everything else you're accustomed to doing online," the Google TV site states. Yet it also adds the caveat that "the world's best websites are now being perfected for television" meaning that some websites aren't going to be as viewable on Google TV as they are on the web.

The Power of Search
At next week's Streaming Media Europe show in London, a panel I'm moderating will explore search and recommendation engines.

For those who already have TiVo, the integration of recommendation is now being augmented by search, with an update to the company's well-known peanut-shaped handheld remote now sporting a full QWERTY keyboard.

On the Google front, with the impending advent of Google TV, the emphasis will also be on search. Yet the company is reaching for a device you already have close at hand: your smartphone.

"Your Android phone or iPhone can be used to control your Google TV in place of a remote control," the company states. "Use your voice to search, and even use multiple phones to control the same TV. No more fighting over the remote!"

The iPhone can also be used to control Apple TV with the Remote app.

Given recent reports of joint television-mobile device usage from broadcasters, including feedback from the Microsoft broadcaster's workshop held at IBC, it's not surprising that Google would leverage the Android OS on the mobile device to work in conjunction with the Android OS on the Google TV device.

Hardware Buffet
Apple TV and TiVo Premiere devices are fairly straightforward. Apple TV won't allow any additional modifications, save for the ability to update the device's firmware for feature enhancements, while TiVo has limited feature set differences, primarily dependent on the service provider decision on which hardware features are required to integrate its service.

Google TV service will primarily be STB=based, although Google notes that it may come integrated into some HDTVs.

At this point, it is uncertain which manufacturers will have Flash-enabled televisions, and how they will integrate the requirements for pointers and keyboards, but an upcoming show may provide some hints: Adobe MAX is being held in late October in Los Angeles, the week after Streaming Media Europe. MAX was used two years ago-prior to Adobe's mobile-strategy announcements at the Mobile World Congress show-to highlight the potential uses of Flash in a set-top box and a number of mobile devices. 

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