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Opinion: Google TV is here – but does anybody care?

Google wants to take over your TV. After an abortive first sortie, the Giant of Search was back with a second iteration of its interactive TV platform at this year’s International CES. But despite its ambitions, there remain enormous hurdles for Google to overcome before it can even begin to repeat the success it’s had with its mobile platform.

Google’s vision is for a multi-brand army of connected screens all running an Android platform optimized for TV. For you, this means a rich connected viewing experience with sophisticated streaming IPTV services and all manner of interactive wizardry. For Google it means cold, hard cash. The company already knows what you do on the internet. But it doesn’t know what you watch in your living room – and that information could be worth billions in TV targeted advertising and streaming services.

However, Google is coming late to the connected TV party. All the major screen makers have already invested heavily in their own Smart TV platforms. And inevitably, each has taken a proprietary approach, creating silo’d communities unable to interact with each other. A classic format war mentality has seen Panasonic develop VIERA Connect, LG launch Smart TV and Samsung Smart Hub. So is there really room left for Google?

Google TV on a Sony TV

Certainly the major screen vendors seem content to keep the internet giant at arms length. Tracking down G-TV powered products at CES proved quite a chore. LG was showing an Android powered flatscreen, but ushered it in with an apologetic fanfare. The brand’s UK CE Marketing Director Stephen Gater was quick to insist that it’s not scheduled for UK stores anytime soon.

“Google TV isn’t heading our way just yet. I don’t expect it to become a reality in the UK until at least 2013.” He says the set itself will only appear in the US during 2012. Gater goes on to say that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done before the platform can be made to work in Europe.” Significantly, LG insists that it is not prepared to give up its own proprietary Smart portal either. Users will have the option of booting their set with either Google or LG’s Smart TV portal.

Sony has been a Google TV groupie from the get-go, and is currently planning to launch two Android powered Google TV devices in the UK later this year, neither of which is a telly. The first is a hybrid Google/Blu-ray player, the second a diddy set top box.

Sony Google TV box

Both will come with a characteristically intimidating remote control, which like all Google TV products includes a complete (backlit) QWERTY keyboard. The remote also has a built-in microphone for voice control as well as a 3 axis motion sensor.

As with the LG TV, both boxes have been designed to work with TV optimized apps from the Android marketplace. These include assorted Video on Demand TV services, plus contributions from CNN and the Wall Street Journal. Of course, a large number of existing American IPTV services will not be available to European viewers, because of rights restrictions. It remains to be seen if Google can bring something new to the UK IPTV party, or just variations of already available services such as Flixster, LoveFilm and YouTube.

If we assume Google can resolve these content issues, there’s the promise of some radical innovation down the road. With telly watchers rapidly evolving into two-screen users, there should be plenty of opportunities to push and pull content from TV to mobile device. DLNA media streaming will make it easier than ever to throw your music and movies from a tablet to the big screen.

But not everyone is excited at its potential. Andrew Denham, Panasonic’s UK Marketing Director advocates caution. “Obviously at the moment, we’re evaluating all platforms as they come to market.; we’ll take a view at the appropriate time.”

He says for Panasonic, the current plan is “all about developing the platforms we have and our contacts with the consumer, and trying to understand – particularly in an IPTV context – what really switches people on. That’s our number one priority.”

For Google, such reticence must be frustrating. It knows it’s only a matter of time until Apple launches its long anticipated assault on the TV business. And Google wants to compete – but for that to happen it must persuade hardware partners to commit.

So why are TV makers playing it so cool – and are they making a catastrophic mistake?

The root cause would seem to be an unflustered demeanour toward Apple. Almost to a man, they don’t believe the Cupertino mafia can steal the TV market from under their noses. After all, they know all too well just how difficult it is to make any money in the TV game – prices are routinely slashed to the bone, and then some. 

Panasonic’s Denham believes it’s too early to predict what impact Apple will have on the TV business. “We respect apple immensely as a competitor, but let’s see what they have to offer the consumer,” he says matter of factly.

My bet is this laissez-faire attitude won’t last long if Apple’s TV arrives with a Siri-powered bang. Second tier brands will quickly realise that their best hope for survival will be to huddle together beneath an Android banner, taking advantage of the might of the Android marketplace as well as playing on already established mobile loyalties.

And there’s more confusion waiting in the wings, because not all Google-powered screens are created equal. PC maker Lenovo recently unveiled its first TV proposition: a 55inch edge-lit LED screen which bizarrely runs the Android Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0 OS. It’s unclear at the moment whether Lenovo’s Ice Cream Sandwich set is a harbinger of things to come from the nascent Chinese TV industry, or just a curious aberration.

As with genuine Google TV products, the Lenovo’s remote incorporates voice control and the screen is able to play arcade quality games. However, if picture quality and user interface are anything to go by, traditional TV makers don’t have anything to worry about just yet.

Steve May is a freelance writer and editor, prior to that he was Senior Editor then Editor in Chief of Home Cinema Choice magazine

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