Way back in May of 2010, I attended Google’s I|O conference. One of the highlights was the unveiling of Google TV–a superambitious effort to bring the Web into the living room in a way that nobody had successfully done before. I got all excited. But when I tried the Google TV-powered Logitech Revue box that fall, it was a major disappointment.
Google TV was still ambitious, but it was also confusing, buggy, and bloated. And the major TV networks (including CBS, CNET’s parent company) quickly began blocking Google TV from receiving streaming-video versions of prime-time shows, eliminating one of the platform’s major theoretical selling points.
Once it was obvious that Google TV 1.0 was no landmark product, Google stopped talking much about it, except for an occasional acknowledgment that it planned to update it. I began to wonder if it might not survive the pruning of not-so-successful products that Google has undertaken in recent months.
On Friday, Google finally revealed its plans for Google TV in detail. It’s releasing a major upgrade that will show up on Google TV-equipped Sony TVs next week, and on the Revue shortly thereafter.
Judging from Google’s blog post about the update, it’s less about packing in more features–Google TV had plenty of those already–and more about trying to crystallize the basic idea into something a little more refined and coherent. The new version will have what Google says is a simpler interface; it’ll play up YouTube more; it’s designed to make it easier to find TV shows and movies in both streaming and over-the-air form; and it has a version of the Android Market that will start out with about 50 apps.
The first version of Google TV arrived at a time when a lot of people were all worked up about the notion of cord-cutting: Cancelling cable service and relying entirely on Internet streaming for TV. It also seemed to compete directly with the second-generation Apple TV, which arrived at about the same time and which clearly had ambitions to enable its owners to cut the cord.
But Google TV wasn’t ever really about cord-cutting. Actually, one of the most audacious things about it was its search feature, which tried to replace the classic cable-TV programming grid with a search engine that let you Google all the shows on all the channels you were paying for. (The first pass at this feature didn’t work all that well, but I still admired the concept.)
With its comments so far on the new update, Google is working harder than it did the first time to explain what Google TV is and isn’t–and that it’s not about cord cutting. For one thing, it makes the fact that major content providers continue to block their shows from reaching Google TV less catastrophic. For another, it lets the company devote more effort to Google TV’s YouTube feature, which won’t replace cable anytime soon but has plenty of potential to be a nifty supplement to it, especially as it adds more professional content.
What’s more, for every argument in favor of cutting the cord right now, there’s at least one against it–such as the fact that live news and sports are plentiful on cable and scarce on the Web.
In short, Google’s now-more-clearly-articulated goal of melding conventional TV with the Web rather than rendering TV as we knew it obsolete makes sense. It may not change everything, but you know what? No other living-room Internet product has changed everything either, including Apple TV. And Google says there will be some all-new devices based on its platform next year, which means that this update is less Google TV 2.0 than it is Google TV 1.5.
We may need a few more generations of Google TV, Apple TV, and other competitors before anything comes along that has a shot at being a historic breakthrough of the sort that the iPod was a decade ago. I’m glad Google seems to understand that–and that it plans to keep plugging away at the challenge rather than filing it away with failed experiments such as Wave and Buzz.