Google Video goes live

Content, interface and prices fail to impress as Google launches its video-on-demand Web site.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
4 min read
The Google Video was online late Monday after being announced Friday--and judging from first impressions, Blockbuster Video and NetFlix may not have much to worry about yet.

The video store was accessible at the top of the main Google Video page with four rotating featured videos. At one point they were: "Star Trek Voyager-Tattoo," on sale for $1.99; the Jan. 4 Heat-Hornets basketball game for $3.95; an ITV news segment of the Christmas dinner held by British troops in Bosnia in 1995; and a video that teaches youngsters "essential early-learning color concepts" for $2.49.

A drop-down menu lets people browse selections of NBA basketball games, movies and music videos, as well as television shows like "The Brady Bunch," "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," "Nova" and "The Ed Sullivan Show."

Diving into the video selections unearthed tantalizing titles including "Birth Control: Myths & Methods, Spanish Version," "Bobbito's Basics to Boogie" and "ChinaPortal Presents: Xu Genbao and the Future of Chinese Soccer Part 1."

A search for the keywords "John Wayne" turned up a 1934 movie titled "Blue Steel" for sale for $1.99, a bunch of interviews with James Garner and other movie stars, and video from a 2005 Long Beach city council meeting.

The main Google Video page also has rotating feature videos categorized under "popular" and "random" sections. Samples of those included the notorious Tom Cruise appearance on "Oprah Winfrey," a "biker dancing silly" and a documentary claiming to expose "the conspiracy between the Free Masons, U.S. presidents and the 9/11 terrorists attacks."

The Web site adheres to the Google philosophy of less-is-more but lacks any slick design elements that would signal the existence of sexy content such as, say, movies. And, rather than still images from videos to click on for a sample clip, many thumbnail images and preview boxes feature only plain screens with the name of the show--or a blank black box.

Peter Chane, senior business product manager at Google Video, said the content providers are responsible for choosing the thumbnail images and if they don't supply one, Google displays the first frame as the image. The company is working to replace the black thumbnails with something more eye catching, he said.

"This is the first day of the store so we have kind of a default experience and we are making improvements all the time," he told CNET News.com.

Some of the free videos looked fine, but a test download and purchase of the "Where is Everybody?" episode of the quirky classic Twilight Zone television series yielded some problems.

The nearly 25-minute file downloaded extremely quickly. But the image quality was poor. That could put the service at a disadvantage to Apple Computer, whose iTunes store offers consistent video quality for commercial downloads. (Google does not enhance images received from content partners, so if the quality is poor, that's the way Google got it, Chane said.)

The purchase process was simple except for a glitch that forced the buyer to log out of other Google accounts, such as Gmail, before completing the transaction. Chane said he had not heard about the payment processing problem and would look into it.

On its Google Video Blog, the company announced Monday night that its Video was live: "Those of you following this blog over the last few months know that Google Video prides itself on the thousands of smaller, unique titles created by the community. And in the near future, any content creator will be able to sell their videos at a price of their choosing using the Google Video Upload Program," the blog posting said.

However, the video store--which like some other Google services is unavailable on Mac computers--was not an instant hit with everybody. Dave Pell wrote on his Davenetics blog: "Hey, is it my imagination, or is (this) the first really bad product Google has launched? The dropdown nav disappears when you leave the front page. There are about nine music videos for sale. Why not be the search engine and not the store? I don't get it. I know these are the first hours of the service, but I just don't understand the move."

On the Unofficial Google Weblog, poster Brad Hill complained about the lack of selection and high prices.

"At first glance, the prices for this home-grown content are...well, optimistic, to put it graciously. Unrealistic or inflated, to be harsh about it," Hill wrote. "A short description and a 30-second clip are the only audition clues you have to decide whether to plunk down 10 bucks (to pick a random example) for 'Segment '76,' an 84-minute comedy set in Poland."

In response, Google's Chane said the company was adding more video from content partners every day. As for price, the content provider decides what that will be, he said. "If the content providers find they are not selling enough (of a video) they can drop the price," he added.

He denied that the product was late. "We wanted to ship a product that was good for users and good for content providers and we think we did that on Monday," Chane said. "We shipped it when it was ready."

Chane also asked people to contact Google with complaints or information about any problems they may find with the service. "I invite users to e-mail us with specific concerns. We take those user comments very serious," he said.

Meanwhile, America Online said Tuesday that it had acquired video search engine Truveo for an undisclosed amount. But there was no news from AOL or Google on any video distribution deal, despite the $1 billion Google agreed to pay last month for a 5 percent interest in Time Warner's AOL unit.

CNET News.com's John Borland contributed to this report.