By Alistair Barr
Google has tried to penetrate the living room for several years, with limited results. Its latest approach suggests a desire to learn from past mistakes.
The company, with little fanfare, has been courting TV makers with software dubbed Android TV, a TV-oriented version of Google’s popular mobile operating system. Some details about the company’s plans were reported over the weekend by The Verge, including screen shots showing apps for delivering content to TVs over the Internet.
But key elements of Google’s strategy were also discussed by partners at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, though they attracted little attention. The Chinese appliance maker Hisense Co., for example, used the event to show off TVs that run on Android TV, one of which, the H6, went on sale in December.
Other details are described in a video presentation at CES by an executive from Marvell Technology Group, a Silicon Valley company that makes chips for TVs and other devices.
Android TV is “the same operating system that runs on phones and tablets, it’s just a different app package that goes along with it,” said Gaurav Arora, Marvell’s director of digital entertainment systems and software, in the video.
Arora said Google has offered incentives to companies to make versions of apps with a 10-foot, or “lean-back” experience that “mostly focus on media consumption and all the kinds of things you want to do with media in the living room,” he added.
A Google spokeswoman declined to comment on Android TV.
The company was not so reticent in May 2010, when it announced the predecessor effort called Google TV at its high-profile I/O developer conference with hardware partners that included Intel, Sony and Logitech.
It didn’t fare well. The Google TV software, among other things, was faulted for emphasizing searches by users on computer-style keyboards, like they do on PCs using Google’s search engine.
Google also ran into friction with content providers that had not licensed their shows for viewing on TVs. Rivals that developed their own hardware and negotiated with content companies, like Roku and Apple, were more successful.
(Google did have a surprise hit last year with Chromecast, a small device that plugs into USB ports on TVs and allows them to display content from Internet-connected tablets and laptops).
The new effort has some major differences with Google TV, partners say, and is a big improvement.
Jonathan Frank, vice president of marketing at Hisense USA, said the Android TV software is particularly good at supporting remote controls rather than Qwerty-style keyboards. Hisense create one called Merlin, a wand-like device that can point at particular spots on a TV screen, like a mouse or using a touchscreen, he said. Users can use the remote to type on a virtual keyboard on the display, he said.
Android TV also supports voice recognition, like some other living-room devices such as Amazon.com’s new Fire TV, Frank said. Users can push a button on the Merlin remote and say the name of a TV show and Google will retrieve it, he said. The system will also search inside apps and list relevant content offered by each of them, Frank explained.
Another difference is that Google is saying little about the new effort itself. “Google will leave this up to hardware providers to tout that these TVs are powered by Android,” Hisense’s Frank said.
Android TV was free for Hisense to use. But the company had to put Google’s search bar prominently on the screens of its TVs that run the operating system, Frank said.
Hisense H6 TVs have a launch screen that includes a Google search box in the top left corner. It also features YouTube, Chrome, Google Play, Netflix, Vudu and Amazon Instant Video prominently across the top of the screen.
A more advanced TV due out this summer from Hisense, called the H7 VIDAA, will also use Android TV, Frank said.
The Hisense H7 VIDAA TVs will have a digital panel that slides out from the left side of the screen giving viewers options like live TV, video on demand and apps. Google Search and Google’s Chrome browser are other prominent options on this panel.
Users of the new Hisense TVs log in with their existing Google account credentials, from existing services like Gmail or an Android phone. Video, music, apps and games can be downloaded onto these TVs from Google’s Play store and popular services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video, Vudu, Crackle, Pandora and Spotify all work on the larger screens, Frank said.
“This is really Google’s second full attempt to get into the living room,” Frank said, noting that Hisense worked with the company on its previous Google TV effort. “We’ve been there for all the trials and tribulations and hopefully the successes now.”