Google: A new consumer electronics power broker

Google TV could be the solution to a problem that has eluded tech geniuses for years: how to marry the PC and the TV. Win or lose, it says much about Google's clout outside of search.

Google I/O 2010
Six tech industry CEOs don't often appear in the same place at the same time. Google, the dominant search company of our time, has clout in consumer electronics as well. James Martin/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--Could the long-awaited marriage of the television and the Web be blessed by a search company?

Google is at least going to make an attempt, unveiling the signature announcement of Google I/O 2010 , Google TV, before a crowd of developers at the Moscone Center Thursday. While Google will need developer support to make Google TV happen , the message wasn't entirely aimed at them.

Instead, in convening a panel of some of the most important CEOs in the world of consumer electronics--Sony, Best Buy, and Intel, among others--Google declared its intention to shake up the world of consumer devices the same way it has disrupted countless other industries in its 12 years as an organization. Google is attempting to do what the PC and consumer electronics industries have tried--and failed--to do for years: bring the nearly unlimited content of the Web to the large-screen TV while preserving the tried-and-true television experience that has enraptured three generations of Americans.

If this effort succeeds, there will be a new power broker in consumer electronics. And Google will have found a way to move past its identity as The Search Company in order to focus on a future based around Web-connected consumer-oriented software.

It's far from a slam dunk: powerful entrenched industries tend to not like it when Google comes knocking on their door. And tech conference demos alone--especially buggy ones--do not sell a product. But after the failed attempts of the Wintel duopoly (remember that?) to accomplish this goal in the last decade, Google is pushing ahead with its own take on the problem at a time when people might be finally ready to listen.

So what is Google TV? Essentially, it's an Android-based operating system for televisions and set-top boxes that fulfills one of the key goals that eluded the PC industry years ago: seamless integration of Web content and cable or satellite content.

Intel and Microsoft wanted to put PCs in living rooms, attempting to dress them up to look like cable boxes or DVRs. However, people didn't want to buy another full-fledged PC simply to sit in their entertainment centers and drown out the movie with the sound of the cooling fan. And the Windows brand did not resonate with the consumer electronics set, who didn't want long boot times or PC weirdness when trying to fire up their favorite show.

Apple waded tentatively into these waters with Apple TV , providing a smaller and less obtrusive box for the living room but walling off the content experience to the iTunes Store and putting few resources behind the project. More recently, a host of other devices like Boxee, Roku, and Slingplayer have tried to deliver Internet content to the television, but they force the user to choose between "Internet mode" and "television mode," and it's amazing how reticent people are to hit a button to switch between input modes.

Google Eric Schmidt Vic Gundotra
Google CEO Eric Schmidt (right) and vice president of engineering Vic Gundotra think that if they play their cards right, they could be a player in consumer electronics. James Martin/CNET

So could Google TV break this logjam? The promise is certainly there: offering bored TV viewers a better way to search for things that interest them seems like a winner. And layering the Internet over existing television is an idea that has shown some promise, in things like Yahoo's work on TV widgets.

There are more than a few challenges . For one, nobody has any idea what these TVs and set-top boxes will cost relative to existing devices. People might be convinced to pay some sort of premium for this experience, but how much? These are uncharted waters.

And how will Google's search technologies be implemented in this product? Mark Cuban, founder of Broadcast.com and HDNet, and avid NBA playoff spectator (as opposed to participant), nailed it when he said Thursday "the success of Google TV will come down to one thing...PageRank. Can you imagine the white hat and black hat SEO battles that will take place as video content providers try to get to the top of the TV Search Listings on Google TV?...How Google does its PageRank for this product will have a bigger impact on the success of the product in the TV market than anything else it does."

But aside from the questions about Google TV itself, the announcement once again reveals Google's limitless ambition. This is a company that honestly thinks it can provide better technology products and services than anyone else in the world.

People laughed when Google got into mobile operating systems, wondering how a search company could break into a market dominated by old hands like Nokia and RIM as well as new upstarts like Apple (which at least had the benefit of decades of world-class software development). That seems to have worked out well for Google: it's the second largest smartphone operating system supplier in the U.S. at the moment, behind RIM and ahead of Apple.

There are few companies that could have assembled a CEO roster like the one Google put together Thursday. Coordinating the schedules of six major consumer electronics and computer industry CEOs must have taken a huge effort behind the scenes, and they weren't even all in Las Vegas in January for CES. It was quite a list: Intel CEO Paul Otellini, Sony CEO Sir Howard Stringer , Logitech CEO Jerry Quindlen, Dish Network CEO Charlie Ergen, Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn, and Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen.

As we alluded to earlier in the week , Google is reaching a point in its evolution where it is bringing the tech industry into its own orbit. Consider this: Intel and Sony played second fiddle to Google Thursday in an announcement that highlighted their own failures to produce such a product.

And however Google's ruling triumvirate might feel about Apple CEO Steve Jobs and all he has accomplished over the years, Google could not have drawn clearer battle lines on Thursday: it wants to be as prominent a consumer electronics software company as Apple, and it is going about that strategy by marshaling industry support, rather than going it alone.

 

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