With Android TV, Google takes third shot at television

The search giant rejoins the race to become an entertainment hub, with help from Sony, Sharp, Asus, and Razer.


Google unveiled a new television set-top box initiative Wednesday, called Android TV, as part of its latest effort to become a central hub of entertainment for its customers.

The Mountain View, Calif., search giant said it has developed software that helps smartphones and tablets interact with a television to perform a variety of tasks, including searching for videos, controlling playback, and controlling a video game. Televisions can also be controlled by a smartwatch, Google said.

"TVs are fast becoming smarter and more connected," said Dave Burke, a Google executive.

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The move is part of Google's broader effort to bring its software and services beyond typical computers, tablets, and smartphones. During its Google I/O developer event in San Francisco Wednesday, the company outlined software for wearable devices, cars, and more.

Android TV brings Google and its partners more fully into competition with Apple, Amazon, Roku, and a host of other companies attempting to bridge the connection between the Internet and the television.

While this latest effort represents Google's biggest push yet, it's not the first attempt by the company. Google launched its initial try at the television in 2010 with Google TV, a separate software package that promised easy access to television listings and full access to the Web on a TV. That effort fell flat. The company tried again last year with Chromecast, a dongle that plugs into a television and relies on a computer, tablet, or smartphone to transmit music, video, or photos to the device. Chromecast's success is unclear.

Google's latest effort more tightly connects smartphones, tablets, and other items to the TV by offering the same developer tools the company offers to smartphone and tablet makers. Google hopes that by tapping into the large network of developers for its smartphones, it can encourage them to begin making apps for the television as well.

A primary part of the push involves video games. Google said three out of four Android users play a title on their device, making Google one of the largest warehouses of video games in the world. In a demonstration, Google demonstrated the ability to stream games from a tablet to the television, and then interact with a connected video game controller as well.

The competition in the TV hub market has grown since Google first launched its television efforts in 2010. Though Apple unveiled its set-top box in 2007 as a "hobby" device that streamed photos, music, and video to a TV, today, that gadget has grown into a billion dollar business, and Apple executives have suggested the company has grander designs for the device.

Roku, as well, has begun offering cheaper devices as it's expanded its library of apps and more than 1,000 channels. Amazon, the large Internet retailer, began offering its own device earlier this year, called the Fire TV. It counts more than 300 apps, an Amazon spokeswoman says.

By wading more into video games, Google is also setting itself against established players, such as Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, each of which has been expanding its efforts to reach out to small and independent video game developers.

There are also video game consoles already built using specialized versions of Android. One such console, the Ouya, was launched last year and already counts more than 36,000 developers making titles for its platform and more than 840 games in its library. One of those games, TowerFall, became so popular that it has since expanded to be offered on Sony's PlayStation video game console as well. Ouya has also expanded to offer its library on other devices.

Julie Uhrman, CEO at Ouya, expressed concern over Google's strategy of extending Android mobile games to the television, rather than requiring they be specifically built with a livingroom setup in mind. "Providing the easy to port a game from one device to the other doesn't necessarily mean it will be the best experience for both devices," she said. Games need to be more emotionally engaging, she said, and successful ones tend to offer longer experiences than the minutes-long chunks that have become popular among mobile titles. "The TV as a platform is different."

Some games do work well in both platforms though, she said, but generally developers need to focus development to fit the type of device their games will be played on.

Google said consumers will get their first opportunity to try new TV devices powered by Google's software by the end of the year. Google itself plans to launch a specialized version of its Google Play store for Android TV in the fall. And the company is working with TV makers such as Sharp, Sony, and LG, as well as box manufacturers like Razer and Asus, to make products available in the coming months.

 

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