Google TV may disappoint some now, but will ultimately exceed expectations


The annual TelcoTV conference is one of the premier events in the IPTV industry. As a conference with a telecom heritage (not streaming media or broadcast), TelcoTV’s focus has been IPTV (pay TV over managed IP access networks) and not IP Video (video on a best-effort basis). Many of the attendees are Telcos that looked at video as an engineering problem first, and by the way, also an answer to the competitive threat posed by cable – rather than the other way around.

In November, I had the privilege of moderating “Capitalizing on the OTT Opportunity,” the closing panel discussion of Day 1. On my panel were executives of two Tier-1 pay TV providers: Verizon’s FiOS TV and DISH Network. There were also the head marketing person from Netgem, a French provider of hybrid IP-broadcast set-tops and middleware, and an executive of Dailymotion, a content provider.

The basic premise of the panel session was to discuss the impact of Internet-delivered video on pay TV. In a few words, the impact will be very positive in the long run and there are lots of reasons why. But at the moment, everyone in the industry is blundering about and fearing for their own safety and survival, like spelunkers in a dark cave.

Verizon was the first large US-based service provider to deploy and scale an IPTV service (technically, a hybrid solution using IP for on-demand and cable TV technology for live TV). DISH Network is the first pay TV operator to deploy Google TV. Netgem has no U.S. presence yet, but has deployments in Europe – including one of the largest TV service providers in France, SFR (which operates Neuf Cegetel) which has more than 3 million IPTV subscribers – as well as Telstra, the incumbent Telco in Australia. Dailymotion’s video content is found on FiOS TV, Google TV, and many other platforms. So the panelists could all speak from personal and company experience.

I wrote an early analysis on Google TV, released in August (for which I’m about to release an update). So I was very curious about the actual product, and had it installed the week before TelcoTV so I could speak about it intelligently as the moderator.

So what was my verdict? For the most part, I have been very impressed (with the integration and the user experience), but also disappointed (for lack of content). However, I have every confidence that the early disappointments will be addressed and that, as a platform, Google TV will ultimately be seen as the game-changer it is. I have three reasons for this assessment.

1) The content owners’ blockade against Google TV is likely to be temporary

Because they don’t want to disrupt their long-established business models, the major American TV networks have blocked their content from being accessible by Google TV over the Internet. Network TV is largely ad driven, and has been since its very early days. So is Google: 98% of GOOG’s revenue is from advertising. So it’s a tug-of-war over ad dollars. The major networks and Hulu are blocking Google TV because no ad revenue sharing deals have been cut. Once they resolve their business issues, the content will flow. It’s as simple as that.

The TV content that Comcast distributes online via its Xfinity TV online service won’t work on Google TV because it uses Move Networks codecs (and in 2011, Microsoft Silverlight), which current Google TV-enabled devices can’t decode.

Also, Comcast seems to see Google TV as competition – in some ways correctly and in some ways erroneously. Comcast is reported to be readying its own Internet TV device, code named XCalibur. So, in that sense, yes, the two devices would be competing over online video ad dollars. But Comcast seems to be ignoring the potential of Google TV as a distribution medium that they can leverage, which is the potential that DISH saw. As a sidebar, if, by limiting the types of Internet-delivered content viewable by XCalibur, Comcast is acting as a gatekeeper, it is violating the “open networks” and “open services” tenets of Net Neutrality – another reason why the FCC should regain its backbone, but that’s another story.

2) Industry opinion leaders were nonplussed with Google TV, but impressions will change once it’s understood for what it is

Many in the industry punditocracy have said that Google TV’s success hinges on the availability of programming. True, but that’s only part of the story and is (in my opinion) temporary. They neglect the technology and service integration side of the discussion.

The only Google TV launch partner to date that has implemented the full vision of Google TV is DISH Network (with Logitech and with Sony, although I only have tried DISH with the Logitech Revue). This means that DISH’s TV DVR and EPG metadata are handed off to the Google TV search function, so you see a search result that includes them. That’s real TV through DISH Network, not just Web videos from YouTube (which also appear in the search result).

The other part of the integration is control of the set-top box. This means that DISH had to write software that ties their set-top box, the Revue, and Google TV via their respective APIs. If a program turns up in the search result and you want to DVR it, you press the DVR button on the Logitech Revue keyboard (or the regular DISH remote) and that’s it.

3) Google TV is not being merchandised or positioned correctly at retail.

If you go into a Sony Style store or a Best Buy (both were Google TV launch partners), you’ll find Google TV set up for demonstration. But in my experiences, both were set up with DirecTV, which hasn’t done the Google TV integration. Also, most sales people in consumer electronics shops are not subject matter experts, or trained on Google TV.

When the Sony person told me that he happened to be the designated “go-to” person for Google TV, I thought “Great, you don’t see that too often anymore! I got the right guy.” So I confidently picked up the remote and searched for a popular movie that I know is on pay TV right now. When I asked whether a Google TV search result would include TV programs and movies, he said “yes.” What a let-down when the only search results were the movie’s Web site, a Wikipedia entry, and some trailer videos on YouTube. No “real” TV. I guess he thought that, because the content was tied with something that’s on TV now, that it qualified as “TV.” I knew better, and more importantly, consumers do too.

The other disappointment was that the Sony products use this little game-controller-like remote control, and you have to press a trigger to use the keyboard. Reminiscent of the IBM PC Junior of the early 1980s. Because the Google TV integration has not been done with DirecTV, the retail experience quickly got into a mode where I was using the little mouse controller on the Sony remote. To be charitable, I’ll just say that this violates the most basic principles of TV user interface design 101, and did not pass the 57-year-old curmudgeon test.

But Google TV, as a technology and as a tool-set – and as a concept that addresses new expectations about what TV should be – is a really good effort. What it needs is consumer awareness that rises above noise-level. If Google has the wherewithal to give away 10,000 Logitech Revues to developers, and now, 100 free 46″ HDTVs to consumers, why not deploy their minions to Best Buy and Sony Style stores to make sure it’s set up with DISH and to demonstrate it correctly?

I reiterate that DISH did a good job with it. Yes, it’s a little rough around the edges – as the old adage says, “beware of version dot-oh software.” We’ll see if the updates shipped by Google and Logitech in mid-December made a difference. I am told that DISH is working on some tweaks also. Hopefully, at some point, the technology will be refined sufficiently so it doesn’t require a companion device like the Revue.

Give it time. Anyone in TelcoTV circles will tell you that it also took years for the content owners to trust IPTV.