- 2 Min Read / Blog / 3.2.2020
Beyond the smartphone, the average American consumer interacts with a number of different screens over the course of their daily lives. They review documents and websites on their laptops, browse the web and play games on their tablets, and perhaps check notifications or health stats on their wearable devices. But no single screen has captured the populace’s attention like the one we replace least often: the television. The TV has long been the primary avenue for culture distribution, unrivaled for decades until the advent of the internet. No two mediums have so completely dominated how customers receive their news, consume their favorite content, and interact with the cultural zeitgeist. For that reason, it should come as no surprise that major technology companies have begun developing products at the intersection of television and the web, with mixed results.
One of the earliest modes of content delivery in the living room were hard drive–based set-top boxes like cable providers’ DVRs and TiVos. These products allowed viewers to schedule downloads of their favorite programs to store for later consumption, and revolutionized the way we think about broadcast television. Whereas TV fans once had to set aside time to enjoy their favorite shows, they were now empowered to experience the content in their own time and on their own terms. This trend was accelerated by internet connectivity. Once Apple’s iTunes Store began selling TV content after the original air date, and once streaming media platforms like Netflix and Hulu began revolutionizing how syndicated video content is conceived and delivered, perceptions about TV viewership transformed completely. “Following” a show no longer meant staying in every Thursday night—viewers could catch up on a season’s worth of content over a single lazy Saturday.
Devices to assist with this new viewership model have been slow to market, but adoption trends have been promising. Apple’s first-generation Apple TV was conceptually a modernized TiVo, a hybrid of internet availability and hard disk storage on viewers’ media consoles. The Apple TV operated like an iPod with a 50-inch screen—it allowed users to download video content from iTunes via a tethered computer on their home Wi-Fi network, store it with an on-board hard disk, and play it directly from their couches at their leisure. The device was expensive, and cumbersome to set up, so Apple’s second-generation Apple TV flipped the script completely. It included zero on-board storage and streamed 100% of its media, either from iTunes or from streaming video partners like Netflix. The modern streaming box was born, and dozens of companies rushed to enter the space.
In 2014, the living room is an increasingly crowded technology sector. Roku has launched a half-dozen variants of its streaming boxes, while gaming consoles like Xbox One and PlayStation 4 feature streaming video capabilities of their own. Televisions themselves even include some built-in apps, with Samsung’s SmartTV offerings and LG’s repurposed webOS software leading the charge. But Google has yet to land a real hit in the set-top market, despite numerous attempts. Android TV and Nexus Player are its surest bet yet to capture the living room and capitalize on Americans’ truest pastime.
Jumping the shark
In 2010, Google unveiled their first take on what the future of entertainment boxes could look like. Google TV was a smart TV platform that could come preinstalled on partners’ televisions or operate from one of many connected set-top boxes. The software borrowed features from both Chrome and Android to offer unique apps, Google search, and web browsing on the big screen. Then–Google CEO Eric Schmidt promised widespread adoption by 2011, but the company’s plans failed to pan out: even goofy ad spots starring Kevin Bacon couldn’t help Google’s convoluted software catch on with consumers.
But Google didn’t give up there. Alongside its introduction of the Nexus 4 handset and Nexus 10 tablet at Google I/O 2012, the company teased a new set-top product called the Nexus Q. Running a variant of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and allowing for easy Android phone pairing via NFC, the Q featured a truly jaw-dropping spherical design and a level of hardware polish unseen from Nexus products in the past. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be: the Nexus Q’s $299 price tag and unclear market intention doomed the product before it had a chance to truly leave the starting gate. Google couldn’t win on TV by playing by other companies’ rules—so they retooled product design teams and set to work on something completely new.
A bottle episode
Meanwhile, Apple’s second- and third-generation Apple TVs featured an iOS integration called AirPlay, which allowed content on iPhones or iPads to wirelessly stream to connected televisions. Building on Apple’s AirTunes technology with iTunes and AirPort Express base stations, AirPlay expanded to include video streaming, audio streaming, and even display mirroring on connected Apple TVs over Wi-Fi networks. The platform’s seamlessness was quintessential Apple, and these integration features drove sales of the $99 set-top box more than anything else.
At the time, Google maintained two platforms, Chrome on laptops and desktops and Android on mobile and tablets. Most of the company’s seamlessness features were powered by robust backend cloud services, synchronizing messages and preferences across devices via users’ Google accounts. But the company sought to explore something totally new—something that bridged Chrome and Android and brought a level of fun to their living room experiences. In July 2012, Google quietly launched the $35 Chromecast, an HDMI dongle that allowed for wireless media steaming or mirroring via an Android app or Chrome extension. The low price of entry and ease of use helped Chromecast explode into one of the best-selling electronics products in recent years, and countless apps from media partners began supporting the “Google Cast” spec in Android and even iOS. Google had their hit, but still needed something more.
Shooting a pilot
Earlier in 2014, Amazon expanded their growing Fire line of products to include a set-top product called the Amazon Fire TV. Running a fork of Android called Fire OS, Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets had been among the first non-iOS tablets to achieve a degree of success and adoption among casual tech consumers. With their addition of the Fire Phone and Fire TV, the e-commerce giant had a fully realized ecosystem to push their library of movies and TV content. Google’s Play Store now had a massive Android-based competitor, and the company needed to develop a way to deliver its media content directly to living rooms—fast.
Google’s current initiatives weren’t cutting it. The Chromecast allowed for Google Cast streaming of web content and mirroring of Chrome tabs, but didn’t have an interface of its own. Users couldn’t sit on the couch and simply use a Chromecast to explore media or stream movies. Alongside broad-ranging Android ecosystem announcements at this year’s Google I/O conference, Google introduced a new platform for televisions called Android TV. The software allowed users to browse and stream movies and TV shows from the Google Play Store, and actually ran Android applications on televisions—a pain point for the streaming hub Chromecast. Android TV launched with a development hardware box called the ADT–1, which would allow Android developers to begin adding support for Android TV to their apps. It represented the next generation of Google television products in their infancy—but it didn’t take long for Android TV to grow up.
A series premiere
Alongside the company’s new Nexus 6 and Nexus 9, and to coincide with the launch of its long-awaited Android 5.0 Lollipop operating system, Google introduced the world’s first streaming set-top box running Android TV. Called the Nexus Player, the circular puck inherited industrial design cues from the Nexus Q and will retail for $99, in the range of Apple TV and Fire TV competitors. The Player is compatible with Lollipop devices and was designed to support existing Google Cast capabilities from Android apps and Chrome extensions, meaning early adopters could instantly begin streaming content from their existing devices.
The Nexus Player borrows voice search capabilities from Amazon’s Fire TV and offers a standalone video game controller for separate purchase, powering a fledgling ecosystem of Android-based console games. Coupled with playhead synchronization features to allow viewers to pick up where they left off on any of their connected Android devices, the Nexus Player occupies a desperately needed middle ground to pull Google’s media offerings closer together.
There’s no telling whether Nexus Player will see the widespread success of Chromecast or follow in the footsteps of its Google TV predecessors, but the new iteration fills a blind spot for Google Play’s up-and-coming media empire. As viewers’ expectations of streaming products and content availability continue to evolve, Nexus Player’s inclusion of quick voice search features and Android integrations could place it ahead of the pack. An interesting strategic decision means Google Cast works across mobile platforms, preventing the kind of OS lock-in that AirPlay brings to iOS. This means that any smartphone user, Android and iOS alike, could pick up a Nexus Player and begin exploring—now it’s up to Google Play to make them want to.