McAdams On: Google Chromecast and the Battle to Control the TV

GAME — The pitched battle for control of the TV continues with a $35 doodad that may be the most elegantly disruptive development yet. Introductory supplies of Google’s Chromecast streaming stick sold out within 24 hours. Chromecast is a thumb-sized “dongle” that plugs into a TV’s HDMI port and voila! It enables streaming—from NetFlix, YouTube, Google Play and Chrome. Just like that.

There’s no additional interface to figure out—a huge step over the connected-TV wall. Ease-of-use is the magic potion, holy grail, killer app thingy everyone talks about but can’t quite get to because developers think in code and people who watch TV think in push button. A $35 thumb drive that syncs automatically with a smartphone, tablet or laptop and works from that device interface? Sweet. Right now, I’m doing the same thing with a MiniDP, but that means the device is tethered to the TV. Google just let that dog off the leash.

It’s a breakthrough, but there are drawbacks to be sure. It has a power cord—not a huge deal, but images out of the gate suggest otherwise. It’s cloud-only, which means good things for hard drives, but who knows what for bandwidth bottlenecks and bufferbloat? Thankfully, network purveyors are all over both like white on rice because there’s so much competition between ISPs. Laugh out loud.

Clearly, Chromecast is Chromecentric and Chrome is a memory hog if ever there was one. Only a minority of users will sort through tasks and extensions to rein that baby in. IT personnel should all just wear t-shirts that say “clear your cache,” because so many folks can’t be bothered with the most rudimentary of computer maintenance.

There’s also the fact that Chromecast won’t play iTunes content, which may or may not be a factor in the long run. iTunes movies are generally cheaper by roughly a factor of 3x than those on Google Play, which hardly has a library to speak of. NetFlix, however, is the contender, as long as the studios stay on board.

Ideally, the next manifestation of Chromecast, from Google or whomever, will be platform/content/player agnostic, which logically is what us folks otherwise referred to as “consumers” would prefer. Washington insists that competition is good for We the People, but “good” in the sense of cod liver oil when it comes to TV Everywhere.

This TV Everywhere concept of watching television content on any device and Internet media on TV is in reality siloed by pay TV providers, not unlike the symbiosis of wireless providers and smartphones. Chromecast is certainly a step in a more egalitarian direction, but one must recall what’s at stake for the TV business: $45. 2 billion in advertising worldwide during the first quarter of 2013, according to Nielsen.

Live television continues to dominate the ad revenue landscape because it continues to dominate people’s viewing habits. On average, Americans watched 4 hours, 39 minutes of live TV per day during the first quarter of 2013, versus 26 minutes of time-shifted TV. Video games logged 13 minutes, and DVDs, 11. The ratio between the four hasn’t changed significantly since Nielsen started cross-platform reporting in 2009.

Whether or not Chromecast portends a significant change in viewing behavior remains to be seen, but it certainly seems to have the potential to move the needle.

10 Things You Need to Know About Google’s New Chromecast,atReadWrite, and Google Play’s Chromecast page.