Saturday, May 12, 2012

Google and Sony continue to fumble with Google-TV

At the beginning of the year, shortly before the start of the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Google announced a new set of partners for the development of Google-TV 2.0. For integration directly into TVs, Google added LG, Samsung, and Vizio to 1st-generation partner Sony. Intel dropped out of the smart-TV market altogether, to be replaced in Google-TV by chipset suppliers Marvell and MediaTek.  First-generation partner Logitech also dropped out, citing losses from their Revue controller for Google-TV, in November last year.

In the nearly five months since CES, Google-TV 2.0 has yet to appear on the market in any manifestation. Nevertheless, Google-TV evangelists have been quite active in Silicon Valley, trying to drum up interest in the TV platform from Android application developers, holding a "Hackathon", and delivering presentations to various groups such as the IEEE Consumer Electronics Society. Meanwhile, earlier this week LG Electronics announced that their Google-TV will be available to U.S. consumers starting later in May.

Also this week, Sony used the occasion of their new store opening in Palo Alto to host a panel discussion on Google-TV. Community Manager for Google-TV, Kevin Lau, was joined by Product Specialist Rex Brown Jr., Product Manager Eric Liu, and Developers Advocate Shawn Shen.  Sony's Director of Engineering for Google-TV, Jason  Clement, also participated on the panel, along with Rob DeMillo CTO from Internet-TV site Revision-3. Google also held a live "Hangout", with a live feed to their Google+ site.

Technical difficulties at the Sony-Google event, from the fumbling with a cheap hand held webcam, and an inaudible feed from the Hangout, only served to further illustrate how not been ready for prime-time Google-TV has been. Apparently, it didn't occur to anybody from Sony that they had semi-pro HD camcorders on display in the store, just a few feet away. The moderator then put Product Manager Eric Liu in an awkward position at the outset, by asking him to describe how Sony's implementation was better than others.

In response to an online question on what consumers should do if they are interested in Google-TV, Google's Product specialist said that, though Google was "proud" of their Gen-1 product, consumers should wait for Gen-2, even though he couldn't say how long that wait would be. Liu then jumped in, saying
"we have a problem that a lot of companies would love to have, we are sold out of our current product, that is why it is hard to buy Google-TV now ".  

By failing to acknowledge that the "shortage" was primarily due to Logitech dropping production, this left an impression that Google-TV was actually a success, contrary to the company's earlier admissions.

Sony's Clement then pulled out a sample of the internet-TV player that the company showed at CES, which will include a Google-TV app.  This product is not yet ready either, but Clement said it should be available "in the summer time frame". Laughter ensued, when the panel moderator compared the Sony box to Roku, who claim to have sold 2.5M of their devices.

When asked what Sony adds to enhance Google-TV, Clement pulled out a new remote controller, which combines a backlit physical keyboard on one side, with a touch screen on the other. The new controller will also be available "in the summertime". Application developers can expect to see further Android fragmentation issues from the various implementations of Google-TV. Sony is planning to release a different remote controller for their Google-TV/Blu-ray disc player, with an embedded microphone. Voice-command functions, which are already available in Android, will apparently not work with Sony's standalone internet-TV box. Clement also said that Sony is working with Google to find a way to release Google-TV outside of the U.S.

The next question to the panel was a poll of their favorite app. While Revision-3 has their own video streaming app, other selections form the company's CTO ranged from Pandora, to worldwide webcams, to a flight-tracking ticker. Sony's Clement selected the audio/video media server function, which is generic to any smart-TV platform. Google product specialist Rex Brown then pointed to the built-in Chrome browser, allowing users to surf the internet from their TV. Liu and Shen highlighted the functions of theYouTube app, while Lau mentioned Netflix. Google-TV is challenged to compete with other streaming internet-TV devices, since Hulu-TV and others have specifically blocked their apps from use on  the Google platform. 

One of the problems for Google-TV, especially when integrated into a smart-TV, is rapid obsolescence and upgradability. While smartphone owners may upgrade every two years, consumer replacement of TVs is more like 7-8 years. Clement said that Sony's Google-TV product roadmap is only for Set Top Boxes (STBs), which they expect consumers to replace every 2-3 years. 

Finally, Google's Liu left developers to read between the lines, when asked if a Nexus-like device might become available for the TV platform. Liu said "I can't answer that, but it's a good question".

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