Will Google take over your Television? Is that even a bad thing?

So far the biggest news I’ve heard out of Google’s I/O conference pertains to the launch of Google TV, the latest and greatest attempt to bridge the worlds of desktop computing and TV watching.  The list of products, services and software that have tried to connect these two seemingly similar activities is depressingly long, but with each iteration of TV and web technology the gulf gets narrower and narrower.  Indeed, the problem may no longer be one of “can someone do this,” but one of “can someone get all the oligopolies involved to play nice with one another?”  Before we dive into Google TV, let’s take a quick look at its predecessors and rivals:


This one is near and dear to my heart, mostly because it involves good ol’ Bill Shatner himself.  Yes, back in the late ’90s it seemed like WebTV was going to make the future arrive and the impossible possible.  Unfortunately, it was so bogged down with technical problems (both those caused by its hardware and those inherent to the internet) that it never really got off the ground in a meaningful way.  Now, all these years later, we’re finally on the verge of making the same idea actually work.

Apple TV

You would think that anything to do with the iTunes suite would be instantly and invincibly successful, but the world just wasn’t ready for Apple TV.  Perhaps it was its less-than-intuitive integration with TV hardware/software.  More likely, it was the iTunes pay structure that people did not agree with.  Apple failed to understand that people’s TV watching habits are entirely different from their music-listening habits, as most people don’t watch given episodes of TV shows a sufficient number of times to make purchasing them for $3.99 apiece a worthwhile investment.  Still, kudos to Apple for trying.


Molly Wood FTW!

One of the latest attempts to integrate web-delivered content through TV is the Roku box, a set-top box that lets you pull content from Netflix, Amazon Video, Pandora, Flickr, Facebook and a number of great podcast networks all to your Television with an easy-to-use menu interface. So far it has gained an impressive following in the early adopter community, but has yet to cross over to the mainstream.  Personally, I’m holding out for…

The Boxee Box

Taking the ideas behind Roku, Apple TV and XBMC (more on them later), Boxee has creted a unique combination of online video organizing/playback and social networking.  While it’s currently only available as software (you’ll have to either link your existing computer to your television or by a separate nettop to load it onto) the forthcoming Boxee Box should bring all of those nifty features to your living room with minimal effort.  Plus, their remote has a full keyboard on the back! How cool and useful is that?


Okay, now we’re getting into seriously geeky territory.  For those who want all the benefits of linking a computer in your home network up to your TV so that you can pull digital content from anywhere, but don’t want to deal with the limitations of existing hardware (and can’t wait for the Boxee Box) this LifeHacker article will show you how to build your own setup using a $200 nettop and XBMC, the most popular DIY web-to-TV-integration software on the internet.  With this, you can pull pretty much anything imaginable from the internet or your home network and output it to your television, but it’ll cost you both money and time (and probably more than a few headaches.)  This is about as far from the Apple TV “Don’t Think” mindset as you can get, but for plenty of independent geeks out there it can’t be beat.  It’s worth mentioning that XBMC began its life as a software option for the Xbox, and many of these features (such as Netflix and limited web browsing) are curently available on the leading video game consoles.  But all of this brings us to the big news of the day…

Google TV

So far I don’t have much to say about it that isn’t summed up in their launch video, so here it is!

Now that we see the biggest name in online videos (the owners of Youtube) delivering content directly to consumers through their Televisions, will this be the final step we need to push our TV interactions into the 21st century?  Will people like me be able to abandon their cable subscriptions for good in favor of services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Video?  Will the telcos and content providers (and Comcast/NBC Universal, who now occupies both categories) let it happen?  Will they have a choice?  Will anyone over the age of 40 be able to even use a television once all of these hi-tech changes go into effect?  All of these questions and more may be answered by this time next year.

As for the title of this piece, there are many people in the world who see Google’s growth in both scope and depth to be a terrifying portent of nightmares to come.  A great example of this alarmism is the famous “darth vader” video:

I remain unconvinced of Google’s supposed “dark side.”  While it is true that they do have their fingers in many different pies, Google has a staunch commitment to making sure they are never the only choice for any given activity.  If you want search, you can always go to Yahoo or Bing.  If you want email, MSN or Yahoo or any number of private options are available to you.  If you want a browser, you still have choices like IE, Firefox, Safari and even Opera.  From social networking to voice calling, online document collaboration to maps, photo storage to RSS feed reading, blogging to video hosting and all the other services Google provides, they’re never the only game in town and they don’t want to be.  Their goal is to be a source of perfect data, and to drive whole industries to take the best advantage of the internet’s capabilities.  Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do?, has joked that Google’s unofficial motto is “we are the internet,”  and it makes a lot of sense.  It wasn’t specifically Google that killed all of the industries that are dying today, it was the internet.  Google just showed the world how.  I suspect that the same is true of Google TV.  It’s not the first hardware/software combination to bring the web experience to your couch, but it may be the one that takes best advantage of the technology currently available in a user-friendly way.  Google may be a looming giant, and its potential for evil may be somewhat daunting, but consider how badly any other company would’ve betrayed the trust of its customers by now if it were in Google’s place.


4 Responses

  1. I am girlcotting Boxee because they had the Suicide Girls perform at their tech event, making it ever more clear that the world of integrated tv-internet-computer is, in their minds, the guy place to be.

    I’m not sure I’m down with Google’s designs. Buzz confounds me. Blogger, though I use it and like it a lot, seems a bit… Illogical. Wave? I don’t even know! They’d have to convince me that their system would be easy enough for at the very least me and one of my sisters to figure out – because my other family members can’t even figure out how to switch to the DVD player from the Cable Box.

  2. I wouldn’t count Boxee out just because their event managers followed the “booth babe” trend at electronic shows, but obviously you and I have different perspectives on such things. I think they were more playing to the fact that electronics shows are a guy place to be, and thus far they have been.

    As for Google’s UI choices, they do tend to be a bit hit-or-miss. I’d argue that they still have the simplest of search interfaces (in both functionality and aesthetics), and Chrome seems to be as streamlined as a browser can get, but some of their other choices tend to feel like they were designed FOR engineers as well as by them. Every iteration of Wave comes closer to something I hope to one day use, but the technology is so far ahead of its time that it’ll be years before we all catch up. As for Blogger … there’s a reason WITWAR is brought to you by WordPress. I’m surprised that Buzz confuses you, though. I have less trouble using it than Facebook!

    P.S.: I added a section to the end of this post a few minutes ago, which means it probably wasn’t there when you read it. It might be worth your time to go back and check it out.

  3. “I wouldn’t count Boxee out just because their event managers followed the “booth babe” trend at electronic shows, but obviously you and I have different perspectives on such things. I think they were more playing to the fact that electronics shows are a guy place to be, and thus far they have been.”

    One of the things about the last half of that statement that gets me is that one of the contributing factors (and we can argue about the size of that factor) for why electronics shows are a guy place to be is because they feel unfriendly to women. And hiring the Suicide Girls doesn’t change that. It plays to your base audience, but it doesn’t seek to make the product and the culture available to a wider array. So, I’m not going to buy their product if they don’t see me as a customer to woo. I’ll go to Google or Apple or someone who doesn’t overtly tell me I’m not their demographic.

    You’ll have to show me how to use Buzz. I do love Chrome, and Google search itself is a wonderful experience, so maybe. I’m not counting them out!

    I did read the end. I’m not philosophically comfortable with any one company owning too much market share, even if I believe that they now follow and have historically followed their “Do No Evil” position. And I do. I like Google a lot. I don’t always like what Google does, and often I feel as if they are just better at making us comfortable with things like data-mining than Facebook is. They don’t have that creep-factor thing attached to them.

    So, I’m not against Google going into the TV business, or the phone business, or the social networking business. I’ll only become concerned when they are major players in all of those categories. Because, Supreme Court decision aside, companies aren’t people and the next people to head it up may not be of the DNE mode of thought, nor of the “competition is good” idea. The next guy may want to be the only game in town, and it’s that future that makes me nervous. Far more nervous than I am about Apple, because I’m sort of of the mindset that the company will stumble without Jobs there, and do that thing they did in the 90s when no one bought their computers. But, for right now, Google seems to be one of the Good Guys.

  4. Hey now, you know my stance on Santa Clara V. Southern Pacific Railroad! In fact, it’s first on my list of ways to alter history if I ever get a time machine (even above killing Baby Hitler!)

    I’m still sad to hear that you’ll be girlcotting Boxee, but I understand your perspective and I won’t get in the way of your principles.

    Sure, the worry of a “new boss” at Google has given me more than a twinge of white-knuckled terror, but thanks to efforts by Google’s own Data Liberation Front, at least it will be easy to get your data out of all things Google if/when that day comes. In the meantime, I support them in their efforts to destabilize and democratize every industry they touch.

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