Remember all those big, disconnected screens sitting in the corner of rooms, the ones we call TVs? It was only a matter of time before someone started putting them on the web. That someone, it seems, is Google, which today started selling a USD 35 accessory called the Chromecast to connect your TV to the internet.
While the hype cycles have waxed and waned around ‘Smart TVs’, not least around Google’s own flawed ‘Google TV’ platform, there’s been little mass market progress in allowing existing TVs to act as internet connected devices. Chromecast, by virtue of its simplicity, backwards compatibility and low cost, looks like the best chance yet of changing that.
The proposition is straightforward: hand over your USD 35, plug the Chromecast into any TV with an HDMI slot, connect to your home Wifi and you can now send content from any Chromecast-enabled web service to the screen. For instance, if you’re watching a Youtube video on your Android phone, there’s now a Chromecast button to start playing it on the TV. It is also being extended to other platforms, so Netflix on iOS will have a Chromecast button too, allowing you to start a Netflix movie playing on your TV from your iPhone. It will work from Windows, Mac and Chrome OS PCs, providing you’re running the Chrome web browser, so you can show things like web-based photo galleries on your TV.
There is, of course, nothing ground-breaking about the ability to play a video on your TV using your phone. There have been numerous options for doing this over the years: phones with mini-HDMI outputs, proprietary cradles and ‘industry standards’ like DLNA and Apple’s AirPlay. However, there are some crucial differences with Chromecast which make it worthy of attention. Firstly, it isn’t just about video and music. While these services will be most in focus at launch, once you plug Chromecast into your TV, it becomes a generic smart screen for a range of different services. Google has an API to support this – it will only be a matter of time before your Chromecast TV is capable of showing you a photostream from all your family members, or a summary of the week’s weather or the recipe you’re working on in the kitchen.
There are also some promising signs in the technical specifications and interaction details Google showed at launch. For instance, the Chromecast itself is connected directly to the web, not just a receiver for content streamed locally from a phone or PC. This means that when you ‘beam’ a piece of content from your phone to the Chromecast, it no longer taxes the resources of the phone. Instead, it just sends a command to the Chromecast to grab the content directly from the web. The phone acts as a remote control and doesn’t use any of its own battery or processing power to drive the content on the TV.
I also like the way Google has implemented multi-point control, recognising that several users, equipped with anything from Android-powered Nexus to iOS-powered iPhones, might want to interact with the same Chromecast. It looks like it has been built from the ground up for scenarios like shared playlists or when the user who started a video playing then leaves the room and someone else wants to take over.
The Chromecast architecture looks broad, accessible and web native. It is the first attempt at a system for multi-touchpoint digital experiences which seems to have these characteristics baked in from the start. The way Google has built it means that, in theory, any developer who can build a service to talk to a user’s ‘Chromecast’ space on the web can deliver an interactive experience across your TV screen, phone, tablet and PC.
Apple, in contrast, has been doing content replication reliably and with impressive ease of use through AirPlay and Apple TV for some years already. However, despite the noise it made about opening it up to developers, there has been slow progress in building anything other than apps which can share video or music. It also costs more: an Apple TV box is almost three times the price of a Chromecast.
I do have some concerns around the practicalities of Chromecast. It is a basic, almost utilitarian looking 2 inch long plastic stick with an HDMI connector. This is hardly surprising for a USD 35 device. The design is aesthetically uninspiring to say the least, but even more seriously, previous versions of these HDMI sticks from other manufacturers have been notoriously unreliable.
Streaming content in real-time requires consistently good Wifi reception and its hard to achieve that in a relatively small, low power design like the Chromecast. We’ll have to wait to see how it performs in real world scenarios, but the idea of a stick-style accessory, hidden behind all the interference of a TV panel, tucked away in the corner of a room, trying to communicate with a Wifi router on the other side of the house installed by an amateur with no knowledge of signal strength does not fill me with confidence! It may seem like a technical triviality, but it will make the difference between whether videos start playing quickly and continue playing reliably – that’s a crucial part of the customer experience.
There’s also an air of uncertainty and experimentation around Google’s commitment to home connectivity. Its Google TV products with hardware partners like Sony and others have flopped. Its own previous attempt in this space – the Nexus Q audio device – was pulled before it was properly launched. While the video and music sharing parts of the Chromecast look relatively fully formed, the more interesting bit – the developer API for building other services – was carefully described as a beta and a preview.
The company conducted and published its own very worthwhile study about users’ increasingly multi-touchpoint behaviour patterns last year. I hope what it observed in that study has established an understanding of how important it is to go beyond today’s Android and Chrome OS connectivity options to build a properly multi-touchpoint architecture for future digital experiences, bringing together PCs, tablets, phones and TVs.
A serious commitment to building a platform for this multi-touchpoint world would establish long-term competitive advantage for Google. Apple is failing to make the most of the opportunities it has with AirPlay, while Microsoft’s multi-touchpoint efforts around Windows Phone, Windows and Xbox look woefully outdated. Other large-scale digital players, like the big consumer electronics manufacturers, have wasted years already by not fully grasping that the next wave of digital experiences is going to fundamentally multi-touchpoint.
If Google gets serious about it, this unassuming USD 35 stick could be the starting point for a much wider play in establishing connected experiences on a new set of screens in the home.
If you’re a regular MEX reader, you’ll know multi-touchpoint user experiences have been a major theme of MEX Pathway #2 for some years at our events and in our writing. Lots more reading to be found on the blog or see the original set of Pathway provocations.