LAS VEGAS--History may be repeating itself as the Internet draws closer to televisions, but no clear front-runner emerged this year at CES; certainly not Google.
There was a television roughly every 10 feet last week in the Central Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center, home to the massive CES gathering of the geeks. Samsung, LG, Toshiba, Sony, Panasonic, Sharp, and virtually anyone else you can think of that makes a television constructed a sprawling booth to hawk their wares, with an increasing focus on so-called "smart TVs," or TVs that can access content from both the Internet and the cable jack or satellite dish.
It was harder to find TVs running Google TV. Despite a high-profile launch event in May at Google I/O that demonstrated Google's diplomatic ability in an industry far removed from its home turf, Google kept a very low profile at CES, with just a few executives in attendance, fewer products on display, and a lack of interest in commenting on the record for this story.
The smart TV concept in January 2011 greatly resembles the "smartphone" industry in 2004 or 2005. Everyone is convinced that the Internet will one day transform the way people use the basic product, but nobody has hit on the right combination of hardware, software, and services that makes the general public finally get it and open their wallets.
Instead of letting one company do to televisions what Apple did to phones in 2007, Google is trying to provide software for an industry looking to bring a better Internet experience to its products. For the moment, however, television makers are still largely rolling their own when it comes to building Internet-connected TVs for 2011, much the same way companies like Motorola and Verizon tried to develop their own phone software in the years before Android became a force.
Sony was an original Google TV launch partner, and devoted a significant corner of its massive CES booth to its Google TV products, with several peppy spokespeople on hand to demonstrate the Google TV experience. Most companies, however, had little to say, perhaps at Google's request--as reported by The New York Times--to hold back on introducing products until a future version of the software could be released. Only Samsung took a public step toward Google TV during CES with a pair of devices running quietly on the sidelines of its booth on Thursday that Google and Samsung didn't get around to announcing until midday Friday.
Part of the problem is the age-old question facing this market: what exactly is a "smart TV," and how do people want to use one? It's a very new and wide-open market at the moment, and there are a lot of ideas as to how best to implement the tricky combination of a large screen, a remote control, a cable or satellite feed, Web sites, and applications.
Several vendors at CES tried to claim the "smart TV" concept as their own, including Intel, LG, and Samsung, which despite its budding Google TV partnership plastered gigantic posters all over the front of the convention center promoting its Smart TV.
Toshiba cut a deal with Yahoo's Connected TV service, displaying several devices in its booth. Others, like RCA and Haier, were on board with Google but in a much different way, promoting Android TVs running Android 2.2 instead of Google TV as the basic software delivering connectivity.
RCA chose to use an Android implementation developed for the company by partner On Corporation for its Internet-capable TVs--because Google placed too many restrictions on how partners could implement the Google TV software and because the first version was "too technical," frustrating both users and implementers with glitches and hard-to-use controllers, Blake Lofgren, a spokesman for RCA, said during CES. Google TV itself is a version of Android, but Google has apparently laid down much stricter guidelines for the look and feel of Google TVs than it has for Android devices.
Mark Arnold, a sales trainer for LG, rolled his eyes when asked if LG was impressed with the initial version of Google TV: "Was anybody?" In CNET's official review of the first Google TV devices, Matthew Moskovciak wrote, "The Logitech Revue with Google TV is loaded with potentially game-changing functionality, but its high price, numerous caveats, and current assortment of bugs make it best-suited to early adopters--at least until promised firmware fixes become available."
Even Sony, perhaps the second-most prominent supporter of Google TV at the show (Logitech's booth was devoted almost entirely to Google TV), acknowledges that the industry has a lot of work to do convincing consumers to take a chance on Google TV.
"We have to explain what it is; we have a lot of time to generate excitement and interest in what we're delivering,..." said Sony CEO Howard Stringer, in response to questions about Google TV in a roundtable discussion with reporters at CES. "The public is slow on this because it's another big purchase, and we have to be patient."
Several television industry holdouts interviewed on the sidelines of the show--including LG's Arnold--were more agnostic when pressed further, suggesting that if Google TV took off with consumers, they had nothing against the software in general.
Part of the problem could be the worry that those who adopt Google TV could find themselves having an even harder time differentiating their products from the competition's. Not all HDTVs are created alike, for sure, but consumer electronics companies seem very determined to avoid the fate of PC companies, who became almost entirely dependent on Intel and Microsoft's release schedules for major product innovations in exchange for embracing standards and interoperability within an industry.
Left unsaid was the notion that some of these companies may also think they can get in on the potential marketing and advertising benefits that might come along with owning a valuable piece of real estate. One clear worry about Google TV among media executives is that it will shift advertising power (further) away from traditional television toward Google's online bread and butter, and tech companies that don't have quite the same sideline in advertising that Google does might be easier partners to work with on advertising products.
And so Google TV continues to wait for its breakthrough moment. Google can at least take comfort in the fact that after all these years nobody else seems to have nailed the right TV-Internet interface: truth be told, the approaches that Google and the TV makers are pursuing aren't all that different in terms of the basic design.
Phone companies and wireless carriers knew for years that the Internet would one day be big on mobile devices, but in many cases they chose to follow their own software development paths or settle for alternatives like Symbian or Microsoft. And, as few of them lived and breathed software development, they failed until Apple forced their hand and Google stepped up with a quality product.
A similar day may one day come to the TV industry, but it's clear that despite the crowds of tire-kickers surrounding Sony, and Google TV partner Logitech's booths at CES, Google TV has not yet produced that sense of urgency.
CNET's Erica Ogg contributed to this report.