My parents received a Google TV (the Sony version) for Christmas. Being the visiting technophile, I was tasked with setting up the device and teaching my parents how to work it. I had previously set up the exact same device for my roommates over the summer in San Francisco, so I was familiar with the set-up and the device itself. This post is a brief review of the set-up process, followed by my thoughts on the concept of Google TV and similar systems.
Review: Google TV
Installation is fairly straightforward. Google TV sits between your cable or satellite box and your television (or if you have one, your A/V system). Essentially, Google TV becomes a layer on top of your TV signal. The unit comes with infrared “blasters” that allow your Google TV remote to control your cable/satellite box (and A/V system), and the remote itself can power on the TV and control the volume.
After you have the unit connected, you are taken through a fairly easy software set-up process. Syncing the remote, connecting to your wireless network, logging into your Google Account, and letting the device update are fairly painless. Identifying and customizing your cable/satellite provider and premium channel options takes a little time, but after that, you’re basically set.
The latest iteration of Google TV appears to be a version of the Android Honeycomb system, which is sort of the transition version of Android between the old-looking Gingerbread OS and the futuristic polish of Ice Cream Sandwich. There is a version of Android Market with a handful of Google TV-ready apps like Pandora, Twitter, etc. I won’t spend too much time talking about how Google TV works, but it basically gives you a unified way to search web video and TV listings, as well as the wider Internet. There is a version of Chrome in there, and a custom YouTube player. You can find more details using your favorite search engine. It’s not a bad experience for what it is.
The Missing Link in Internet+TV
What I really want to talk about is why attempts such as these to meld TV and Internet fall short. The key software features are in place, though there’s certainly plenty of room for growth and innovation there. The real problem is the one that has plagued efforts in this space since WebTV came out in the mid-’90s: the keyboard.
Well, it’s not really the keyboard itself that’s the problem. Sony, Logitech, and others have done as well as they could here. The problem is the experience of using a keyboard to control a device and screen that is 10 feet away from you. It’s essentially the opposite of the experience that a tablet gives you, where you are almost literally touching the objects you are manipulating on the screen. With Internet+TV, you really do feel the distance between yourself and what you’re manipulating, even though you have the same controls available to you as you would if you were operating your laptop computer: a keyboard and a pointing device. It’s the feeling of being forced to play one of those arcade crane games to pick up a stuffed animal: this should be so easy, but it is, in fact, extraordinarily foreign and frustrating.
Here’s what needs to happen in this space. The experience shouldn’t revolve around the TV. It should revolve around a tablet. The Internet doesn’t need to be integrated into the TV; the TV needs to be integrated into the Internet. The TV device itself should just become a big screen that you throw content to. When you’re searching for a TV show, tweeting, creating a Pandora station… it doesn’t make sense to be doing any of those things by using a keyboard in your lap to operate a device that’s 10 feet away. You should be doing all of that in your lap, and then once you’ve selected something the result shows up on the screen, whether it’s a video or picture or even text.
The connection between the user and the web is too intimate to be stretched across the living room. The experience of Internet+TV should not be centered on the TV, it should be centered on the user. A tablet is the perfect bridge between the two. I have my suspicions that this is part of what Steve Jobs meant when he revealed towards the end of his life last year that he’s “cracked” the TV problem. I think it’s a safe bet that the iPad will play a central role in whatever Apple’s got coming next for TV.
Google TV is a not-bad experience, but that’s not saying much. Adding the Internet to your TV is looking at the problem backwards. The TV should just become your entertainment monitor, with the rest of the experience centered on a tablet.
Image: cc-by dailylifeofmojo (Flickr)