Last November I reviewed Google TV 2.0, a software update pushed out to owners of Logitech and Sony GTV devices. The folks at Sony lent me a 46-inch SIT for testing purposes, and while I found the update to be a marked improvement over the GTV 1.0 software it replaced, I didn’t think it would do too much to reverse Google’s television fortunes all on its own.
More recently, Google released a few more upgrades to the platform including a Honeycomb (Android 3.2) update - notable in part for an improved Chrome browser – and a new YouTube app . Sony was kind enough to let me hang on to the loaner for a few more weeks so I could put the new updates through their paces. Everything else aside, it’s a pretty nice 46-inch LED HDTV, especially considering its price has been slashed to below $1,000.
In sum, GTV 2.0 is more of the same from el Goog: The new updates are improvements, but they don’t change the fundamental value proposition behind Google TV as a smart TV solution. Chrome is faster and now supports HTTP Live streaming, which is great for local streaming apps like Plex. The GTV-specific 10 foot YouTube experience is better now, too, which is good because GTV’s best features is the integrated Web/Video search that lets you look for content across free and pay outlets including YouTube. There’s nothing quite so satisfying to a geeky miser like me as wondering, “Can I watch the episode of Family Ties where Alex gets hooked on speed?” and finding out not only that I can, but I can do so for free on YouTube. And then watching it. All on the same device, using the same remote. and triggered by a simple search query.
But as this week’s news that Google TV has been rooted attests to, the platform is still sorely lacking in that thing people want most from their boob tubes: Content. Owners of Sony Google TV products can finally watch streaming content from the four major networks, Hulu Plus, and other previously blocked sources, if they’re willing to root their devices and install a modified Flash plug-in that circumvents said content blockers. The root process involves no fewer than four USB flash sticks and voiding your warranty, but hey, it’s something. Otherwise: No mainstream Web TV for you.
Ironically, a few free porn sites streamed their Flash content just fine to my GTV unit, making me wonder if Google shouldn’t just market to the ‘adult entertainment’ crowd. Considering that Chrome for GTV includes an “Incognito Window” feature, I’m guessing the thought at least crossed somebody’s mind during the engineering process. Or maybe that’s not so ironic. Much as they’ve done in the mobile market, Google has taken a very “Anti-Apple” approach to the living room (which makes perfect sense, of course). Apple wants to sell you everything from digital music singles to the rights to watch first-run TV one season at a time. They also want to provide you with one very clearly marked path to obtaining and consuming that content. There’s one line of iOS phones, one line of iOS tablets, a sole iOS PMP, and a sole Apple-branded set top box. Each device connects to Apple’s App and iTunes stores and while third-party catalogs are available, they’re chosen carefully and sparingly, and only added when consumer demand insists.
Google on the other hand offers as many Android phones and tablets as their OEM and carrier partners want to be built. Their efforts at a digital music play have centered around an online storage locker for music you already own, coupled with desktop and mobile player apps. They sell some music, but it’s not a particularly big part of their business. They also launched Google TV across three lines of devices from two manufacturers. Android is all about choice.
Choice in this context also applies to tinkering at the user level. Rooting a Sony Internet TV to run a modified Flash plug-in that gets around Hulu’s firewall may not be for everyone – if it’s even legal – but installing Plex on an HDTV and server is right up many an Android user’s alley. Google TV is exactly like Android for mobile in the sense that what it lacks in the way of a shiny, upsell-oriented ecosystem it makes up for with bountiful opportunities to customize and tweak your devices. Sometimes in ways that void your warranties, even! To be fair, iOS and Apple TV users have their own lengthy history of jail breaking and modding. But they do so atop a platform built to leverage content selling opportunities; Google TV’s first root & mod exploit is in part aimed specifically at getting more content onto the platform. Why? Because content is a problem for GTV.
The 3.2 release was apparently Google TV’s last major update before the platform migrates to 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich” later this year. I’ll be watching with much curiosity to see what ICS brings to the GTV table. No doubt the release will be rife with design and functionality upgrades, and deeper integration with other ICS products like phones, tablets, and maybe even smart home gear. But will it also bring more content to users’ living rooms? Sony has already announced next-gen Google TV boxes, and LG and Vizio are also prepping GTV hardware for launch this year. There’s also that OnLive partnership promising cloud-based console gaming later this year (currently a Google TV OnLive app allows users to watch games only).
Google TV still has legs. Question is, how far will those legs carry the platform, and into how many homes? As always with TV, the answer boils down to content. Will Google TV remain a YouTube machine with auxiliary bring-your-own content machine features, or can deals be struck to bring first run programming to the platform? Maybe we’ll find out at Google I/O in June.