The Google Set-Top Box (Think Android For TV)

google-tv-ads.pngDeep in the Googleplex there is an engineering team thinking about how to extend Google’s reach into your TV. Its work goes way beyond the Google TV ads currently being tested by EchoStar (and targeted with help from Nielsen). It even goes way beyond the development of a Google set-top box, which has been hinted at in the past. In fact, Google may very well want to do to the set-top box what it is trying to do to the mobile phone with its Android operating system—create an open-source hardware platform and attract developers to build applications on top of it. At least that is the unconfirmed rumor I’ve heard from two knowledgeable industry sources.

“That’s been a persistent rumor, yeah,” says Peter Barrett, chief technology officer for Microsoft TV (and the only source willing to be attributed by name). “You would have to ask them about whether they are doing anything like that and whether it is a good idea or not,” he adds. So I put the question to Vincent Dureau, the head of Google’s TV technology team and the former chief technology officer at OpenTV, who was hired by Google two years ago. “There are rumors about what Google does all the time,” he says. “We have been totally focused on advertising so far.” Google’s policy is not to comment on future products. But Dureau never denies the rumor outright. He couches his response with phrases like “so far” and “at this stage.” And, when pressed, he does allow that there is “a lot of potential” for turning the TV set-top box into a platform for applications, but insists, “I have no insights as to what form of applications will be deployed on those set-top boxes or not.” Perhaps. Or perhaps he just doesn’t have any insights he is willing to share with us. Fair enough.

Let’s read through the tea leaves ourselves then. So far, Google’s aspiration has been to change the way advertising is sold on TV. Through its partnership with EchoStar, it is automating the way TV ads are bought and sold, and changing the way they are measured (by studying the second-by-second logs from millions of set-top boxes in an anonymous fashion). But why stop there? The modern set-top boxes you get from your cable or satellite TV provider are basically computers. They are loaded with a few limited applications—a program guide, DVR menu, customer-service messaging, and not much else. They are closed boxes, tightly controlled by the cable and satellite TV companies. For the most part, there are not a lot of interesting applications that run on set-top boxes.

An open-source operating system like Android for the set-top box could change that. If creating applications for set-top boxes was more like creating applications for the Web, we’d be able to do a lot more things with our TVs—especially if those set-top boxes were also connected to the Web. Want instant messaging and caller ID on your TV? No problem. Want customized information widgets for the TV that scroll breaking news, weather, sports scores or stock quotes from sources you choose in your own ticker at the bottom of the screen? No problem. Want to turn that annoying ticker off? No problem. Want to control the camera angles on that basketball game? No problem. Want to add the live video stream from your friend’s cell phone who is at the game? No problem. Want to create your own video mashup of fight scenes from various movies that you can edit right on your TV and share with others on their TVs? No problem.

Oh, and what about new forms of advertising? Inserting ads into pay-per-view or triggering them when someone presses fast-forward on their DVR require applications of a different sort. You might not like that, but the TV industry would. Any new video ad unit that starts to gain traction on the Web could be ported over to regular TVs—clickable overlays, contextual video ads, unobtrusive sponsorship icons. Why not even let viewers program their own ads with a laundry list of categories and companies to choose from? They might actually watch them.

When it comes to advertising, Google is not shy about stating its ambitions. “We are confident we are going to revive the television advertising industry,” says Dureau, “by bringing new advertising to it.” Already, Google is trying to make TV ads more relevant, easier to target, and cheaper to deploy. As a result, Google thinks it can attract more ad dollars from smaller businesses that may not have been advertising on TV before.

“In many ways,” says Dureau, “we think that television is becoming like the Internet in that there is a multiplication of channels. This creates challenges for viewers, advertisers and creators.” He is already addressing the concerns of advertisers. An Android-like project for the set-top box could help address the concerns of viewers and creators by giving people more control over their TV viewing experience. And making the set-top box more useful by opening it up to a bounty of applications could mean more advertising opportunities. Those apps would be yet another way to keep viewers glued to their TV sets.

Before Google announced Android, many people thought Google was developing its own mobile phone. But the point of Android is to get other companies to build the phones and a new set of applications for them. Google wants to supply the underlying technology to make it happen, and finally bring the mobile world into the Web age. It should be obvious by now that Google is much happier when it is creating technology platforms—for mobile apps, for social apps, for advertising— than one-off consumer products. Why should it be any different when it comes to television? (And remember, Andy Rubin and others on Google’s Android team used to work at WebTV and TV software startup Moxi Digital, although Android is not officially part of Dureau’s group).

In any case, Google would not be the first to try this. Some of the hypothetical applications I describe above are already being developed for Microsoft’s IPTV set-top boxes, which runs Microsoft Mediaroom. Anyone can write an application for Mediaroom on the PC and easily make it work on an IPTV set-top box (or an Xbox or an HD-DVD drive, both of which come with Ethernet jacks). There are only about 50 or so third-party apps for Mediaroom right now, however, because making TV apps easier to build is not enough. Getting cable or satellite TV providers to put those apps on their set-top boxes is the bigger battle.

“Service providers are open to good rich apps on their network if they do emerge,” says Microsoft’s Barrett. Not surprisingly he does not think that an open-source, Android approach is the way to go. “Trying to make a level playing field,” he says, “really is not in the service provider’s interest. It is in Google’s. But if you just throw the doors open, the TV or the phone becomes unusable pretty quickly.” The same argument is why Apple is cautious about allowing third-party apps on the iPhone. You don’t want some random app crashing your cell phone or your TV. But that just means device makers or carriers need to certify that the apps are safe. The still-closed mobile world is moving in this direction despite these issues.

The prospect of opening up the TV to Web-like applications holds a lot of promise, especially if those same apps can run on the Web or mobile phones with a few tweaks. Whether people will want those apps on their TVs is another question entirely. So far, the answer has been no. But that could just be because it has been too difficult to get apps onto those set-top boxes. For this to work, Google would have to convince at least one cable or satellite TV provider to let viewers try out the resulting apps on its service. Google already has a strong relationship with EchoStar, which I hear is for sale. My understanding is that Google is in the early stages of developing its Android set-top box strategy. It may end up deciding not to pursue it. But it is the type of thorny problem that Google engineers (and ad sales executives) thrive on.