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Can Google Fix Google TV This Time Round?

Today, I heard that Google is most likely working on a new version of their Google TV product.  This evokes mixed feeling in me.  First and foremost, I’m glad that Google is sticking to its guns and working to improve the product.  Internet Television has great potential to turn a static one-way broadcast model into a rich interactive and social experience.  But the 1st Google TV was a piece of crap and should not have been released. The first release was so far off the mark that I worry Google doesn’t really understand what people are looking for when they sit down to watch TV. At best, it was a technology preview with very few compelling end-user experiences. Apple TV, on the other hand, is much closer to getting it right, even though it’s currently crippled by being limited to one-way media streaming.

So let’s look at what Google needs to do to have a chance with this next release.  Google needs to start with the basics and realize that when we sit down on the couch to watch TV, we don’t want to use a browser and google for stuff.  We’ve just come back from work were we did that all day long.  I have this image of a google engineer coming back from the Googleplex and sitting down and thinking about how fun and informative it would be if the TV had a search bar. Unfortunately for Google, that experience, while not invalid, is not typical for the average TV viewer.  Most of us have a very different goal when we sit down with the TV.  Usually its after a hard or busy day and we want to be entertained. That’s a bit of a simplistic definition but clarifies things for this discussion.  Hint to Google, think about how we use our mobile phones.  Just look at the top app downloads and a lot of it is about entertainment and social. The 1st Google TV was clearly a product designed by a bunch of computer engineers (that’s my background as well so no slight intended), who were brilliant but could have used some input from usability experts.

When you are trying to create a new product category, like internet TVs, there are a couple of critical things that have to happen to give the product a chance.  First, the benefit has to be clear.  Second, the benefit needs to be simple and tangible.  The reason that Apple was able to have such a success with the iPad while all those before them failed, was that they understood these requirements.  I’ve had and used a number of tablets before the iPad and hated them all. So what specifically does Google need to do in this next version to get the average person to consider or better yet, dream of buying a Google TV?

  1. Have a very simple user interface. When we sit down to relax and turn on the TV, no one wants to invest in learning a complicated system.  In fact, it needs to be simple enough where I could hand the remote to my mother and she could use the core functions.  And let’s talk about the remote.  Its design is really important.  Every Google TV I’ve seen had a big clunky keyboard.  Who wants that on their couch or coffee table?  The Sony version of Google TV had pretty much the worst remote every made by mankind.  It was that bad.  There is no doubt that’s it’s a difficult design task to add a ton of functionality and figure out how to have a simple interface.  Experience has shown that in cases like this, it’s better to error on the side of simplicity rather than complexity.  Apple TV’s remote is much better than Google’s even though it can’t do much because people can figure out how to use it. What Google TV needs is a simple touch screen handheld like an iPod Touch.  Or for those with a smartphone, let them use that.  Google, please do not even consider shipping the new version of Google TV if it’s going to come with a full size keyboard.
  2. Google TV must have TV shows and movies on demand built-in and front and centre.  If it came with Netflix support rather than your own streaming solution, that would be a big plus as many people already have a membership.  While this feature is core and needs to be perfect, I don’t believe it’s enough to make Google TV a success.  Adding Netflix to your TV through an add-on is pretty easy and doesn’t require something as expensive as Google TV.
  3. Here is where we get to the good stuff.  Google TV needs at least one killer app.  At this stage, no one care or needs 100K apps.  What we need is a few clear killer apps that show people how Google TV can rock our world… or at least how it’s is better than a plain TV.  People need to see something that makes perfect sense to them and helps them wrap their head around the potential.   You know, like Halo was for the 1st Xbox.  What we do know for sure is that the killer app is not a browser with a search bar.  It may be hard for Google to hear or accept this but it’s the truth.  People generally don’t want to search or browse while watching TV.  TV is supposed to be immersive and a search bar would just get in the way.  Instead, Google needs to think about what it means to watch TV from a users’s point of view.  And then think about how an internet or app-enabled TV could enhance that experience.   Lets look at the top shows and what might be possible:
    • News.  Now that I have an iPad, TV news does not work for me anymore.  First of all, my life is not structured enough to be in front of the TV at the right time.  Google should have key TV news available on demand.  Also, I love that on an iPad, I can pick and choose the stories to focus on.  The result is that I’m able to drill down on the news I care about and skip the stuff I don’t have any interest in.  Google TV needs to bring these elements to television.  With a touch-screen remote, it should be easy for a user to navigate through stories.  For news junkies, this might be enough to consider a google TV.
    • Game Shows.  How many of us watch a game show and play along.  Well, with an Internet TV, it would be possible to actually do that.  As the game is played on the TV, you should be able to enter your answers on the touch-screen remote and have the TV show you your score.  TV is inherently a social thing and rather than the whole family passively watching, with Google TV, it would be like the old days of board games where we all play along and against each other.  For families that watch TV together, this probably would be the killer feature.
    • Talent Shows.  There seem to be a ton of talent shows on right now where the viewers are asked to vote.  It started with American Idol but now there is Dancing with the Star and many more. Each of these ask viewer to vote using SMS.  In this age of real-time, it would be much more satisfying and interactive if viewers could vote during the show.  And since we’re not limited to clunky SMS, lets have some fun with it.  Let viewers vote on all sorts of things: personality, skill, best costume, etc.  And I can think about all sorts of infographics that could be shown about how viewers voted.  Was the singer popular everywhere or was it just young girls or was their fan base mainly in one part of the country.
  4. Add an app store.  I really struggled with whether to add this or not.  I really don’t think that Google TV needs an app store to succeed at this point.  I’m sure this is a contentious point that not everyone will agree with but Apple TV has sold over a million devices without an app store.  That’s way more than Google has sold.  I guessing that Apple decided it was better to ease people into an internet-enabled TV rather than throw too much at users and have their eye glaze over. That and they belief that consumers won’t pay more than $100 for such a device. Given that the iPad is $500, it really shows that they have not figured out what the killer app is yet (which surprises me).  Anyways, its been almost a year since Apple TV was launched and I’m guessing that the next version of Apple TV will finally get an App Store so Google, for competitive reasons, you need to add an app store. In the end, what an app store adds is games.  And that’s something people will want and enjoy.  Now what would really be cool is if the games could multi-player.  If the family is sitting down together, a one player game is not a great experience.

And that’s it.  At this point there is enough for people to wrap their heads around and get what Internet TV is all about.  Don’t add anything else for this release.  All those other great ideas you have should be saved for another release.  Don’t create a propeller head product that only a genius could use.

I for one believe that an Internet enabled TV will be a valuable addition to the home.  I was a Tivo user ages ago and my family loves the Windows Media Center we have today.  But neither product went beyond simple TV functions like on-screen TV guide or programmed recording of shows.  There is so much more than an Internet enabled TV can do for us.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Google has been working hard to improve the usability in a meaningful way.  If they don’t, I fully expect that it wont be long before Apple has the time to get serious about Apple TV and let it spread its wings.  I mean now that the iPad has shipped, they must have some extra time to work on this, shouldn’t they?

Google, the opportunity is yours to show us a compelling reason to want an Internet-enabled TV. Please don’t blow it!


4 thoughts on “Can Google Fix Google TV This Time Round?

  1. davpel says:

    Some interesting comments and if I had the time I will respond point by point. But for now I’ll just say that the Sony remote is, hands-down, the best HTPC remote I’ve ever used. The design lacks only one thing and that’s a backlight. Otherwise, it’s near perfect.

    • admin says:

      Glad to hear that the keyboard works for you. While the Sony keyboard is not bulkiest keyboard out there, its still a lot bigger than it needs to be (and has way too many buttons). In our household, no one was really sure where to keep the keyboard when it wasn’t being used. This is clearly a new space and vendors are going to have to play with different designs to see what consumers gravitate to. My vote though is still on something the size of an iPod Touch or Blackberry.

  2. Dan says:

    Hi, I love your ideas about making the next-gen TV experience a more social one, I’ve waited 16 years for this. I remember a news article in the late nineties with someone watching a music video “Free Your Mind” by En Vogue. The user was able to see what stadium En Vogue was playing at next, book tickets and then actually zoom in and choose their seat.

    Your comment on a mini iPad remote reminded me of an article this week on the Nintendo Wii 2. This seemed to give all players a controller with a builtin touch screen.

  3. Joe says:

    I like google tv, the keyboard is actually pretty good. My only complaint is google tv crashes too often, this is where Apple products stand out, they don’t crash! If google can make it more stable and get some good apps on board with a a few tweaks here and there. It could take flight

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