Google's version of interactive television

It has been tried unsuccessfully many times before, but last month, Google introduced Google TV, a new effort to turn the living room TV set into a lean-back viewing experience. The goal for Google is to make the viewer's interaction go far beyond just a big PC display.

Accompanied by several major high-tech companies at its developers' conference in San Francisco, Google announced that the Google TV service would be built into HDTVs and Blu-ray players made by Sony as well as a set-top box/remote built by Logitech. Intel will make the Atom chips to power the box. The devices will go on sale at some U.S. stores in the fall.

So far, consumers have shown little interest in connecting to the Internet through TV sets, and there are formidable challenges in persuading television set and peripheral manufacturers to back the effort. However, Google has strong assets, including its Android operating system for mobile phones and a powerful search and advertising system. Much like Apple, when Google speaks, the industry listens.

User interface

When a user starts any Google TV device, a simple search bar greets him or her. The viewer then types in what he or she would like to watch. This might be the show name, a search term or a channel number. The system will then display a list of options that includes both TV stations or a specific TV program. The software will point to places to find the desired entertainment program, whether that's through a cable subscription channel, Netflix or even somewhere on the Web. With this mix of Web and TV, the user can also view multiple sources of information in multiple panes.

Using Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, the user will also be able to load a Web page from a Google Android phone and beam it to the TV. The Android phone's voice recognition can be used to search for shows by verbal command. Also, closed-captioning for any TV program will be available through Google Translate in real time.

Multiple partners

Google is pitching its new platform as an easy way to search for TV programming and Internet content without having to navigate slow on-screen directories.

Howard Stringer, chief executive of Sony, the third-largest maker of flat-panel TVs in the U.S. market, appeared on Google's stage to say Sony would build Google's software into an HDTV called the Sony Internet TV as well as a Blu-ray player.

Stringer said Sony was likely to gradually adopt Google's software, which he said was more robust and comprehensive than his company's own Bravia Internet service for Internet-connected TVs.

Stringer was joined on the stage by the chief executives of companies Best Buy (an electronics seller), Adobe, Intel, DISH Network and Logitech, where Eric Schmidt, Google's chief executive, interviewed them about their plans.

Schmidt said that people had been talking about bringing the Web to the TV for two decades. “It's much harder to marry a 50-year-old technology and a brand-new technology than those of us from the brand-new technology industry thought,” he said.

Logitech's set-top box will allow users to receive Google TV without having to buy a new TV set. The company said it was also working on keyboard-equipped remote controls and peripherals to allow people to surf the Web from the couch.

Many companies have already tried to bridge the gap between the TV and the Web. Apple, TiVo, Boxee, Roku and Vudu, now a division ofWalmart, all make devices that offer a variety of Internet video on TV. All have struggled to gain broad adoption, in part because most consumers have avoided hooking up another set-top box to their TVs.

Is it a threat to cable?

If Google's effort is successful, it might create competition for traditional cable companies, because more people could look at content on the Internet and bypass their cable provider's VOD offerings. Google did not talk about its advertising strategy for Google TV, but the company has formidable data-collection abilities to aim new types of ads at TV-watching consumers. The company said users would have control over what information was shared with advertisers.

Google, looking to expand beyond its lucrative online advertising business, is betting that more consumers will want to buy TVs that can connect to the Internet. ABI Research found that demand for Internet-enabled television sets is rising along with the popularity of Internet content. The research firm estimates that 46 percent of flat-panel TVs will have Internet connections by 2013, up from 19 percent this year.

Google versus Apple

A subtext to the Google TV announcement was Google's intense competition with Apple and its chief executive, Steve Jobs. Vic Gundotra, vice president for engineering at Google, used the momentum of Android, a free, open-source operating system platform with few rules governing its use, to draw a sharp distinction between the control Apple exerts over devices running the iPhone operating system.

“If you believe that the only way to get a good smart phone is to bet on one man, one device, one carrier and one choice, that is a different model than we believe in,” Gundotra told “The New York Times.” “We believe innovation doesn't come from one man; it comes from all of us.”

DISH and DIRECTV launch interactive advertising

Other vendors are launching interactive solutions. DISH Network and DIRECTV announced a cooperative effort by releasing a new interactive advertising platform. The platform is called Advanced Satellite Advertising Platform (ASAP) and provides national television advertisers access to nearly 30 million U.S. households.

One important feature of the platform aspect is the ability to deliver interactive content and capability to viewers. The content will be displayed on a uniform satellite-delivered channel dedicated to interactive advertising. Viewers will have the option to watch commercials and then, if desired, engage in further activities with the advertiser. Possible additional content and activities might include expanded product information, specific regional information, such as retailer location, simple gaming and easy ways to request more information. Contests could be used to help drive participation.

The ASAP program will use third-party research services, providing advertisers with independent metrics of the platform's performance.

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The key is changing the viewer's experience

In an article from Broadcast Engineering's sister publication, Connected Planet, Christine Heckart, general marketing manager for Microsoft TV, listed three steps that IPTV must complete to become a success. She said, “ … you can discern three distinct phases, each of which will take us one step closer to unlocking the potential of TV and creating new connected and personalized experiences.” Each of these three phases will drive gradual changes in telecommunications, entertainment and advertising, the three industries most impacted by IPTV:

  • Phase 1: Shift the purchase criteria from price and channel lineup to overall user experience;
  • Phase 2: Change the rules by introducing value-added services that create new opportunities for service providers, content providers, advertisers and consumers;
  • Phase 3: Create new business models that grow the TV market in new ways and shift share from other media.”

Looking at her predictions, step one is completed through the Google TV solution. Step two is in process as viewers gain access to new information and are provided with more control over what they see and enjoy on their televisions.

Step three has yet to be completed. However, the foundations for successfully meeting this criteria are now being released into the marketplace. We'll have to see if consumers embrace them.

Michael Grotticelli regularly reports on the professional video and broadcast technology industries.