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3/1/2011
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GDC: Reframing Google TV

Trying to undo unrealistic expectations about Google TV's potential as a cable killer, Google developer evangelists offered guidance about the real value proposition of the Google TV platform.

The marriage between the Internet and television known as Google TV got off to a stormy start. Launched in October through hardware partners Dish Network, Logitech, Intel, and Sony, Google TV soon found itself starved of high-profile content.

While Google TV users can access premium TV shows and movies made available through TV service providers, they're unable to watch ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, and Viacom shows that have been made available on the Web.

Those networks fear that making their shows available through the Chrome browser on Google TV will lead viewers to stop paying for cable service, from which the networks derive revenue. Consumers would love to be able to view pay TV for free, but Google isn't actually fighting that battle. For Google, Google TV is about creating a new market rather than cannibalizing old media.

While Google continues to negotiate with content providers, the company is looking to developers, particularly game developers, to build a market using Android apps rather than passive entertainment.

Google is working on an Android SDK Add-on for Google TV. Though the software is not finished yet, Google engineers Andres Ferrate and Ian Ni-Lewis stopped by the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Calif., on Monday to explain why Google TV is about a lot more than premium television shows and to acknowledge that the company had failed to properly explain the service.

"One of the things we could have done better was our messaging," conceded Ferrate toward the end of the presentation. It was a surprising admission, but a necessary one. Too many people in the content business see Google TV as a cable killer. But that's not how Google imagines it.

"We think that it's a new market that hasn't been open before," said Ni-Lewis. "We think this kind of device has a really interesting future."

Ferrate opened the presentation with a comparison of Smart TVs, past and present. In 1996, that was Web TV, when there were only 45 million U.S. Internet users, about 17% of the country. Today, there are 230 million Internet users in the U.S., about 76% of the country.

You could argue we're at tipping point where it makes sense for the Web to be integrated with TV, said Ferrate. And indeed, that's the argument he was making.

There were two million Smart TV homes in the U.S. last year. By 2014, an estimated 43 million homes will have Smart TVs, he said.

But Smart TVs, Ferrate argued, are only part of the picture. We're living in a society of multiple screens that are increasingly connected. As an example, he pointed to the way that people watch TV while attending to laptops, phones, and tablets.

"I think that Smart TV is really part of a system, a system that's growing more integrated every day," he said.

The message is that Google TV is a platform, not a hardware product. And its potential will be realized by developers. But developing for the living room is different than developing for the office. The lean-back experience can't be handled in the same way as lean-forward -- traditional -- applications.

One of Google's key findings in developing apps that work on TVs is that traditional controllers don't work very well. Game controllers are too complicated for a casual gaming audience and even the keyboards designed for Google TV navigation and input aren't ideal for entertainment and gaming apps.

What works well? Mobile phones. Conveniently enough, many are already equipped with gyroscopes, cameras, GPS, and accelerometers -- all of which can be useful in game controllers. They also bring with them data that could be useful for personalization.

"For some reason, this form factor and type of control resonates with people in ways I never would have expected," said Ni-Lewis, pointing to a game Google developed called WeDraw.TV, which uses mobile phones as drawing controllers.

Google TV developers also have to consider user interface issues. Large amounts of text in a small font don't work well for users on the couch. For interfaces, simplify and simplify again.

The hardware has to be considered. Google TV, it turns out, is not intended to run first-person shooters like the Quake series.

"It's not a traditional game console," explained Ni-Lewis. "It's a casual game console. We think there are going to be action games on Google TV, but that's not our demographic. It turns out the box is pretty good at social, casual games."

And that was when Ni-Lewis set the hook. "I don't know if you've noticed but people seem to be making a lot of money with social, casual games," he said, and promised that Google TV would allow paid app downloads.

This is a common theme in developer evangelism because it works. For developers, it's all about the money. And it's coming soon to Google TV, or so Google would have you believe.

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