TV/Web Convergence Hits Stride with Google TV

Rishi Chandra, product lead, Google TV

Rishi Chandra, product lead, Google TV

May 24, 2010 – With the advent of Google TV the ability to integrate viewer access across all Web, subscription and broadcast content is poised to become the defining characteristic of the next-generation television experience.

Until now, the over-the-top domain has been barred from including ready access through integrated user interfaces to cable channels without cutting deals with cable or other service providers, resulting in a dual-interface approach where connected TVs and other devices offer program guides separate from those offered by the SPs. And, in most cases, the OTT suppliers, including consumer electronics manufacturers promoting benefits of connected TVs with specialized Web-based content offerings, have not provided browsers to support unfettered Web surfing via the TV.

In contrast, Google TV, to be included in a new line of Sony connected TVs and set-tops from Sony and Logitech slated for sale at Best Buy outlets this fall, is anchored in use of the Chrome browser and an underlying hardware support architecture, incorporated in Intel's new Atom microprocessors, that allows the TV to tune to a chosen channel based on commands sent from the browser. "With Google Chrome built in, you can access all of your favorite Web sites and easily move between television and the Web," said Google TV product manager Salahuddin Choudhary in a blog introducing the new platform.

"This opens up your TV from a few hundred channels to millions of channels of entertainment across TV and the Web," Choudhary said. "Your television is also no longer confined to showing just video. With the entire Internet in your living room, your TV becomes more than a TV. It can be a photo slideshow viewer, a gaming console, a music player and much more."

While these capabilities point to the need for a keyboard-based remote control, with either actual keys or virtual keys displayed on a screen, the underlying search and channel call-up capabilities can be incorporated into a user interface, such as the Google TV home screen or the new interface to be introduced with Sony's new line, dubbed "Internet TV." Dish Network is the first SP to sign on with Google TV, but it's also possible that cable channels could become part of the access domain from Sony connected TVs, were Sony to design the new Internet TV line in conformance with its tru2way agreement with the cable industry.

Under terms of the "Memorandum of Understanding" created between Sony and six cable MSOs two years ago (see June 2008, p. 20), the manufacturer – and others who have since signed onto the agreement – has long had the ability to incorporate access to cable channels in cable-ready two-way TV sets that support the removable security cable standard, so long as they support the cable industry's tru2way middleware platform. But, so far, support for tru2way has been minimal, leaving unclear the extent to which the Google TV solution will actually bring cable channels into play on Sony's integrated user interface.

But it's clear that, with Dish already well into testing of a Google TV set-top, the wall dividing TV programming access from access to Web content will fall. In fact, this was implicit in comments Comcast CEO Brian Roberts made at the recent National Cable and Telecommunications Association convention in conjunction with his demonstration of an iPad-based application that brings pan-content search to the TV.

Outlining his company's approach to dealing with potential Web-driven disruptions to cable's business, Roberts said it's not about forcing people to choose between watching TV or accessing Web content from their PCs. It's about bringing all the options to the TV.

"Our strategy is not to make the big bet [on where consumers will get content] but to be the enabler," Roberts said. "For most of us, you like to watch on your nice plasma display. You want to have that interactivity. You want that data to allow you to search and discover and set a queue."

In presenting Google TV at the annual Google I/O conference in mid May, Rishi Chandra, the product lead on the new initiative, asserted the reason other Web-to-TV solutions haven't taken off is they limit access to Web content to certain branded components without supporting full access or, in some cases, force users to choose between TV and Web content by picking which domain they want to be in. "They're all closed," Chandra said. "Closed does not work anymore."

Google's Chrome browser, introduced a year and a half ago, seamlessly combines browsing and search by allowing users to type in a URL or a keyword to gain access to what they're looking for, with a suggestion support capability that triggers likely fits when a user types in just a few letters. It's now the third most widely used browser with nearly 7 percent of the global market, according to Net Applications.

Along with the Chrome capabilities product executives stressed the fact that, with support for apps written to the company's Android open mobile operations system specs as well as generic Web frameworks, applications developers have the ability to immediately port apps built for other devices to the TV. "Most Android apps would run on Google TV as they are, and we will publish guidelines on how developers can enhance their apps for TV," said Ambarish Kenghe, another Google TV product manager.

Executives said that, in early 2011, Google will launch a Google TV software development kit and by summer 2011 will "open source the platform into Android and Chrome source trees."
One of the first areas of applications development will be new user interfaces that leverage other vendors' technologies to enhance what Google can do. "We've already started building strategic alliances with a number of companies – like Jinni.com and Rovi – at the leading edge of innovation in TV technology," Choudhary said.

As previously reported (February, p. 14, April, p. 26), Rovi has developed multiple functionalities, some tied to dedicated microprocessors, for user interfaces embedded in connected TVs and set-tops that go well beyond traditional programming guide capabilities, including tie-ins with its extensive TV Guide metadata resources to facilitate search. Jinni (March, p. 16), a next-generation TV application firm, is working with Google to support semantic search, personalized recommendations and social features for Google TV across all sources of premium content available to the user, Choudhary said.

Another Google TV application soon to launch is "YouTube Leanback." YouTube, a unit of Google, will soon launch the beta version of this adopted-for-TV version of the popular Web video site with many twists that suggest Google is gearing up for a serious content play in the TV space.

 As described by YouTube executive Hunter Walk, the TV version "behaves like you'd expect TV to." The platform is designed to let users create their preferred videos and video topics and also to offer a set of default channels, eliminating the need to browse, Walk said. "As YouTube adds new content, we'll bring in 'My Rentals,'" he said, in reference to new premium on-demand programming.

On the hardware side, most of the chip-level heavy lifting has already been done in the context of experimentation with DISH's new Intel Atom-based set-top. "We've been working for several months on this platform to get this experience right," Chandra said. "DISH subscribers will be able to seamlessly integrate their DVR and DOD (DISH On Demand) content into the Google TV experience." Set-tops from Sony and Logitech, which will also supply new remotes, will open access to Google TV to owners of any brand of current generation TV sets with HDMI connectors, he noted.

Comcast was obviously mindful of what was taking shape at Google as it rushed the just-developed prototype of its iPad TV control application from concept to demo at the cable show in a matter of just a few weeks. While Comcast does not currently offer a broadband feed of IP content to the TV, it has made clear it's on a fast track to opening an IPTV conduit to new hybrid set-tops and gateways that support both traditional MPEG-2 and IP/MPEG-4 content feeds.

Describing the iPad app as a way to "liberate us from the box," Roberts showed how a user connected via the iPad Wi-Fi portal to a broadband modem can access the company's Fancast portal user interface to search for content topically or via clicks on listings across all on-demand and linear content categories. When a program or movie is selected, the choice is communicated to the local system headend and, from there, to the user's set-top box, which instantly switches to the selected channel.

"The viewer doesn't have to know what channel the program is on," Roberts noted. The application supporting the remote tuning commands is based on the cable industry's EBIF (Enhanced Television Binary Interface Format) set-top middleware, so it works with virtually any digital set-top. Users can use the Web interface to engage in social networking applications as they watch the programming.

"What you saw on the guide is back on the cloud," Roberts said, noting that users want to access all content, whether books, cable channels or Web video, which a device like iPad supports. "The user wants you to have it on Web tools," he said. "We think there are a lot more innovations to come. This liberates us from the cable box and puts the power in the hands of the consumer."

The fact that DISH has recognized the better part of subscription-based provider wisdom is to facilitate access to all content as a point of convenience and better service points to how rapidly service providers are shifting away from a sense of having to isolate their content on the TV. Throw in the data collection and viewing metrics that can be used to create a converged Web and TV advertising environment and it's hard to imagine how programmers and service providers will resist the multi-screen monetization opportunities that are intrinsic to the Google model.