Why Google TV Wasn’t a Hit–and Why It’s Too Early to Write It Off

After a spate of mostly poor-to-middling reviews, Google TV products due out at the important Consumer Electronics Show in early January have been delayed, according to the New York Times. Although Samsung and Vizio apparently will show new Google TV products–in Vizio’s case, privately–Toshiba, Sharp, and LG Electronics apparently have delayed plans to introduce Google TV products after the search giant asked them to hold off. To date, only Sony, with a line of Google TVs and Blu-ray player, and Logitech, with an add-on Google TV settop box, have had products with the software embedded in it. Google TV lets people reach Web sites on their TVs, even while regular TV is playing.

But while some reviews have praised Google TV’s ambition, most have said it falls too far short of what TV viewers want in their living rooms. And they’re mostly right today. The Logitech box, called the Revue, comes with a PC keyboard that some people may find awkward to use on the couch, and the user interface isn’t as clean as it should be. Worse, TV broadcasters, fearful that too many people might prefer to watch episodes on demand on their Websites instead of on their TVs where they’re exposed to much more lucrative advertising, have blocked Google TV users from viewing most of their Web videos. Add the relatively steep price for Google TV products, which starts at $300 for the Revue, and it’s tough to see how these products would fly off the retail shelves.

For all that, it’s way too early to count Google TV as another of Google’s many failed product experiments. Here’s why:

* It’s–well–early. The first Google TV products hit stores in late October. Clearly, they’re not the success Google had hoped. But even folks inside the Googleplex didn’t expect to have a hit with this first generation of products. Which leads to the bigger point:

* It’s a platform, not a product. And not every product has to be successful for a platform to be successful. Despite the latest delays, more products are coming, and they’ll be cheaper, more varied in form factor, and sport better interfaces. Most of all, as Google opens up Android Market to TV apps early next year, developers–including those who know TV, such as networks–will be coming out with more sofa spud-friendly apps that will make today’s Google TV look like the beta products they essentially are.

Of course, at least one Google TV product does need to be a hit. And that almost certainly won’t happen with the current crop of products. The price of add-on Google TV products, which are the key to short-term success because most people already have HDTVs that work perfectly well, must come down to the $100 range, or less, fairly quickly. Otherwise, it’s too easy for consumers to buy a sub-$100 Roku, which works great for Netflix and other video services, or a $99 Apple TV. Or for that matter, they can just hook their PC up to their TV for nothing more than the cost of a cable. Or skip the whole damn hassle and watch regular old TV.

* Google TV isn’t really as complex as some reviewers make it out to be. The user interface isn’t as friendly as it could be (why not a really obvious search button, like on Google’s own Chrome OS demo laptop?). But after using Google TV for a couple of months now, I’m a little surprised how easy it is to find entertaining video on YouTube, quickly look up that actor you didn’t quite recognize on IMDB.com, or listen to Pandora.

Let’s face it, while many people theoretically don’t want a keyboard in their living room, millions of people already do–on their laptops. What’s more, despite the popular image of couch potatoes, almost everyone knows how to surf the Web these days, and I can assure you that you really don’t want to use any existing TV remote to do that. In short, accessing the Web on a keyboard is mainstream no matter what screen the sites appear on. And early next year, I’m betting among the first apps we see are ones that let you use your mobile phone or tablet as a remote. That should make Google TV more appealing.

* One way or another, Google TV likely will patch things up with content producers. This could take months. But whether it’s through the thawing of video dealmaking on the YouTube side or Google itself persuading network executives that they’re better off providing users access to video the way they want it than forcing them to get it elsewhere (like Netflix), it seems certain to happen. How long can network execs block a few Google TV and other Web video devices such as Boxee while not blocking millions of personal computers accessing the same content before they look like they’re completely out to lunch?

* Google’s in this for the long haul. Or at least the medium haul–the company has become notorious for canceling products such as Google Wave that it initially hyped. But Google has an abiding interest in reaching people on the screen that they watch five hours a day. One way or another, the Web is coming to TV, and Google knows it needs to be there if it’s to keep growing its advertising business. In researching a story on the future of TV that will appear shortly (stay tuned), it was apparent how important a project Google TV is to Google and to key partners Sony, Logitech, and Intel. I doubt they’re going to abandon that commitment anytime soon.

All that said, Google in particular may need to adjust its method of releasing products before they’re fully baked. As hard as the Google TV team worked on this project, it’s clear that people expect more polished products when it comes to consumer electronics. For that matter, so do the consumer electronics manufacturers Google must persuade to use its software. As much as the Web is coming to the television, the television is still the senior partner in this relationship for the time being. Perhaps it’s a good idea that Google put the brakes on for now: It must make sure that its Google TV products are ready for prime time.

One Response

  1. […] Why Google TV Wasn’t a Hit — and Why It’s Too Early to Write It Off; After a spate of mostly poor-to-middling reviews, Google TV products due out at the important Consumer Electronics Show in early January have been delayed. (Rob Hof’s blog) […]

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