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What Is Google TV?

This is another installment in our series of "What Is...?" articles, designed to offer definitions, history, and context around significant terms and issues in the online video industry. 

When it comes to premium content consumption, or over-the-top (OTT) viewing of internet video on your home flat panel, conventional wisdom may be wrong. We tend to think "less is more" and gravitate towards one-device solutions that do it all, from our smartphones to our laptops. Yet the OTT market is not yet mature enough to declare one ubiquitous technology or platform the clear-cut winner.

There are a number of OTT platforms and technologies in the market today. Google TV is an important one to better understand, both for its potential and its shortcomings. But what exactly is Google TV?

In a nutshell, Google TV is an OTT platform, designed for use with a remote control and/or keyboard interface, that lets consumers view both user-generated and consumer content. Whether through third-party applications from the Google Play store, the Chrome web browser, or integrated applications such as YouTube, the intent of Google TV is to make online video content or games available in the living room.

Beyond just this general description, though, a few reasons exist to pay attention to Google TV, even after it was panned by one of the consumer electronic (CE) product manufacturers last year as being "beta software" as the company pulled its sole Google TV product from the market.

Android and Google TV are Siblings, but not Twins

Google TV is often confused with Android OS, a handset and tablet operating system that provides some of the underpinnings of Google TV. Often times, when reviewing a set-top box product, we've noticed that some consumer electronic (CE) product manufacturers will use Android to mimic the Google TV interface.

These manufacturers may have their own reasons for using Android, yet why they don't just go all the way and use the standardized interface remains a mystery. In the beginning of Google TV, Google's initial idea was to provide a reference platform for all Google TV-powered set-top boxes, so that the original Google TV firmware would run consistently across all consumer devices.

Why is Google TV Important?

One reason we continue to cover Google TV, despite its up-and-down relationship with CE device manufacturers, is the sheer weight of the company behind it: Google appears to be committed to advancing the platform, having launched version 2.0 of the Google TV specification in late 2011, then updating to version 3.0 in November 2012.

Google sees Google TV as much more than the "hobby" lens through which the late Steve Jobs viewed his Apple TV over-the-top set-top box. As the owner of YouTube, the most-visited online video portal, Google sees potential for delivering a modified version of the online experience to the living room.

The search giant also recognizes a trend among the 25 and younger crowd: The vast majority of searches performed by those in high school and college tend to start on the YouTube home page rather than the Google home page. The reason, it appears, is that these young consumers are looking to video as an entertainment or teaching experience, rather than using text-based sites for the same purposes.

The Argument For a Single Smart TV Interface

Despite CE manufacturer claims to the contrary, the general consumer doesn't see the internet-connected television or "smart TV" as the only device needed to consume premium or OTT content.

In fact, the vast majority of smart TVs aren't even connected to the internet. One reason for this may be a limitation of the sales process, where consumers may not understand that the smart TV can take the place of Netflix viewing on their internet-connected BluRay player. Another reason may be that said Blu-ray player may already be sufficiently connected to the internet, so the smart TV becomes redundant.

Yet another reason may be the lack of standardized interfaces for integrated Smart TV platforms—readily apparent when one views the user-interface differences between any two manufacturer's Smart TVs—that leave the consumer struggling to master the various interfaces on their set-top box, DVD player, and Smart TV.

The value of Google TV, at least in theory, is that it solves all three of these issues. Let's use Sony, the only company to remain committed to Google TV—from its outset to the current day—as a case study in how Google TV can solve these issues.

First, as proven by Sony with its initial integrated smart TV/Google TV platform, consumers respond to having a single device that can show both OTT content as well as traditional cable, satellite or over-the-air broadcasts.

Second, given the fact that Sony also offered a Blu-ray player/Google TV combo device, the now discontinued NSZ-GT1 Google TV box, consumers didn't have to choose between which of two set-top boxes they would use to view content. In addition, the GT1 also has the ability to link to other local devices, such as a DLNA server, to play content trapped on local computer hard drives. DLNA stands for Digital Living Network Alliance, an industry consortium that has done a fairly good job of connecting computers, network-attached storage (NAS), and set-top boxes across Wi-Fi and LAN Ethernet networks.

Finally, regardless of whether consumers chose a Google TV-equipped Sony flat panel television or a set-top box, or opted to have both, the user interface remained constant between the devices. Inclusion of the Google TV user interface appears to be reassuring to consumers, as it behaves similarly to another Google operating system, the Android OS for handset and tablet devices.

The Google TV Hardware Conundrum

Sony's move to have a consistent interface, via Google TV, provides the company an opportunity to launch new products, including the recent NSZ-GS7, which expands on the GT1 by stripping away the Blu-ray player capability and about 70 percent of the physical size.

Unfortunately, the television versions of Sony's Google TV products have not been replaced by 2012 models. Given the fact that Sony chose to move towards an integrated Google TV solution based around the Google TV 1.0 specification, the original hardware wasn't quite up to snuff when it came to adding the additional functionality within the Google TV 2.0 specification.

Also, it appears that Sony acknowledged the fact that Google TV may need a dedicated, mature chipset to run both current and some future versions, and Intel's decision to get out of the integrated television chipset market in late 2011 put a damper on subsequent Smart TV / Google TV systems.

Fortunately, two other companies—Marvell and MediaTek—have stepped up with chips to fill the gap where Intel left off. Marvell's Qdeo video processors were shown in use at the 2012 IBC show in Amsterdam, and the Google TV-powered reference design received an IBC-sponsored award.

We All (Still) Need Set-Top Boxes

All this is to say, at least for the near future, the Google TV set-top box route looks more likely than another integrated Google TV smart television product. Later in 2013 we should see Google TV return to at least one integrated Smart TV product, but for now we all still need boxes.

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