Google, Intel, and Sony have apparently teamed up (and Logitech too) to develop an Android-based platform for interactive television. Let me start my post with some important background points and disclosure:
- I was a cofounder of Mediabolic, a startup who built a platform for connected devices. While there I designed about a dozen “convergence” products (one won a best-of-CES award), and the company eventually got acquired by Macrovision.
- I was an early employee at Sling Media, where I was responsible for developing the Slingbox (another best-of-CES award).
- I once interviewed at Google for a position in a “google TV” role, but didn’t feel it was a really great fit for me personally (not to mention the commute).
- I am currently involved with Boxee.TV, a startup in a highly-related field. There is some amount of overlap here, though that is in no way related to this blog post.
- I’ve also worked with VUDU, Clicker.com, DivX, and others on “future of TV” systems, services, and products.
- I was on the original working group committees for UPnP (AV) as well as DLNA (even before it was called that).
Through the above experiences, I have seen a lot of failure and some success in the “connected TV” space. But mostly failure.
It’s a space where techies dream, entrepreneurs try, and companies fail. The list of failed convergence companies is notably longer than the list of successes. It’s a field where even Apple, the current king of the world when it comes to entertainment technology, can’t get a reasonable foothold in the home.
Most of the failure is due to deeply entrenched systems heavily controlled by huge corporations with little interest or need to innovate. While we can yell and scream about how bad a job the Cable/Satellite companies are doing at future planning, the blunt reality is it’s hard to argue that it’s necessitated. These megacorporations can drag their feet, and deploy mediocre DVRs and HD services, and consumers (for the most part) are satisfied with their experiences. Further, due to their current business structures, the concept of opening up the market to third-party devices, content, services, or applications is not just daunting, but likely unprofitable.
When I consider the opportunity in the digital home, I am convinced it cannot come about by directly competing with traditional broadcast models. Broadcast TV, and all the services with it, are generally easy to use, convenient to pay for, and effectively “good enough” for most people – making “better than current TV” offerings a significant challenge to bring to market. Historically, the only thing to attract the attention of consumers beyond their existing entertainment solutions are:
- Transformative content playback experiences. From VCR to DVD was one example, and from standard definition to HDTV is another. The key word here is transformative – it can’t just be “better quality”, as evidenced by virtually all other introduced formats and technologies based around content.
- Notably difference content offerings. Again, moving up to HDTV-enabled set-top boxes was a natural flow, game consoles are the other shining example of a successful category. Boxes that simply deliver “more of the same” or “stuff you can get elsewhere, now get it here (e.g. digital pictures)” are typically not big hits. Consumers have to see some kind of service that’s worth the extra money.
Everything else has failed to make a dent. Most “Internet Set Top Boxes” have been, and will be failures. The typical logic that brings these products to market goes something like “consumers are about to cut the cables for their Internet content, and really hate watching it on their computers.” The evidence behind this claim? It’s in the same folder with the WMD evidence the government started a war for (zing!).
I’m very curious as to the potential from Google, Intel, and Sony. Intel has wanted in on the “connected TV” for a long time (disclosure: they were an investor in Mediabolic), and has never really executed very well. It’s not to say they can’t, but it’s safe to say the space is far far away from their core DNA. Sony too has stumbled frequently in this space (here’s their version of a convergence device). Logitech? See Sony. And then there’s Google.
Part of me thinks Google believes that all devices are effectively the same, and their (limited) success in the phone market implies opportunity in the TV market. Another part of me thinks Google is just so big they take on any sector they see opportunity in. But most of me thinks Google wants to get firmly entrenched in the biggest advertising market there is – television. And as hard as doing phones might be, doing TV boxes is much much harder. Here’s why:
- Phones play highly restricted media types. Converged TV devices are expected to play all media types. This topic alone is probably worthy of a blog post, but trust me when I say – it’s hard.
- Consumers buy new phones on a recurring basis (multiple times a year in some countries). Consumers replace TVs infrequently, and buy TV “accessory” devices only a couple of times per decade. While the market is huge, it’s hard to get new devices into the home.
- Carriers are motivated to push new devices and services into the hands of their customers, it’s part of their business model. TV service providers are not motivated to do so (as discussed above).
- As much as phones are “closed systems”, a manufacturer is able to purchase equipment and get a device certified and get it on the network without too much involvement by a carrier. While the path is actually similar (CableCard Tru2Way certification), the realities for both the manufacturer and, more importantly, consumer are much much worse.
- Again, as stated above, consumers are generally dissatisfied with their phones (a problem unlikely to go away) and are excited about new ones. Consumers literally dread changing equipment in their living room – even us geeky dads with cool quadrophonic sound.
Now with all that said, I’m truly excited about the future of converged entertainment in (and out) of the home. I remain mostly cynical about seeing any real change anytime soon. I think there are a few companies who have built the right foundation to make some inroads, but I’m hoping everyone involved is prepared to win their “realist” and “slow and steady wins the race” badges over the next few years-to-decade (or longer). Can Google be the catalyst of change, or will they just be the next in the long list of companies who tried and missed the mark?