Google has spent a lot of time building an experience for streaming content on your TV. There have been multiple software experiences, and tons of hardware too. Currently, its biggest success has come from the Chromecast, but recent leaks point toward Google possibly trying to evolve that with Android TV. If you ask me, that’s exactly what Google should be doing — let me explain.
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Chromecast is a fantastic idea, but not as much in practice
Let’s just cut to the chase — Chromecast isn’t intuitive.
The technology is great, and the idea behind it is futuristic and conceptually easy to use once you understand it. But I think it’s demonstrably not the ideal approach when it comes to the living room. I fully understand and applaud Google’s vision of the future with the Chromecast. It is easier to find content from your phone, and it is easier to keep track of your smartphone or tablet versus a remote control.
In many cases, though, it’s just not natural, and it detracts from the overall experience of watching TV.
When we’re talking about a normal TV app, you sit down, grab the remote, open Netflix, and start hunting for something to watch. It may take longer to find the actual content if you’re looking for something specific, but you’re actively engaged in that search. With a TV app, you don’t have to think. You just do. And that’s how most people have come to enjoy watching TV.
On the other hand, with the Chromecast, you’re often waiting for things to connect, having to connect and reconnect because of some glitch from your phone losing connection, or potentially getting distracted by other things on your phone. There are more things that can (and often do) go wrong, and it just ends up being a more confusing experience.
I don’t think anyone has said this as clearly as Ron Richards from the All About Android podcast in a recent episode.
We all know Chromecast is awesome, it’s an amazing technology. Watch a normal person try to use it.
Ron’s statement here is exactly what Chromecast’s problem is, and the comments from his co-hosts in the podcast further drive home the point. Chromecast is great, but it is far from perfect. You can listen to the full segment at the 56-minute-marker of episode 364, by the way.
As mentioned, one of the biggest hurdles for Chromecast is how it connects. I can’t tell you how often I’ll cast Netflix or YouTube, only to find out halfway through the video that my phone has disconnected from the Chromecast. At that point, I’m forced to either attempt reconnecting (which often results in the video stopping completely), or reaching for the TV remote anyway just to press pause on that (which doesn’t work on all TVs). It’s been like this since launch, and it hasn’t really gotten better.
Android TV has been neglected, but Oreo presents an opportunity
Android TV launched nearly three years ago, but you’d be totally forgiven if you’d never tried it or even really paid attention to it. That’s because Google has neglected the platform in numerous ways, from app updates to hardware. Google itself hasn’t released any Android TV hardware since the Nexus Player, which is dead now, and the only meaningful change we’ve seen in ages has been the arrival of Assistant.
However, Google I/O last year gave us a glimpse into Google’s plans of giving Android TV a massive revamp. Android Oreo (or Android P at this point) gives Android TV a huge redesign that looks to add functionality and just make a better overall experience for consumers. App developers still need to get on board with it, but Google really has a chance to build something great here.
Marrying the two in the right hardware is Google’s answer to the living room
Of course, simply replacing the Chromecast with Android TV isn’t the answer. Chromecast is affordable and something that millions of people already use. It presents some clear advantages, like having a keyboard that doesn’t require a million clicks, and apps that don’t require you to sign in on a TV.
That’s where Android TV shines. Android TV itself may be just another user interface with streaming apps on your TV just like Roku or Amazon’s Fire TV OS, having the same limits as those platforms. But it presents that right along with Chromecast functionality. Essentially, you get the best of both worlds. The intuitive, remote-based interface of Android TV is front and center, and you’re just a tap or two away from the “futuristic” Chromecast.
Where Google has an opportunity is in marrying these two inside of the right hardware. Chromecast is popular because it’s cheap. It’s as simple as that. Want to stream Netflix or Hulu as inexpensively as possible? 9 times out of 10, I’m going to tell you to buy a Chromecast, but that’s only because Android TVs are at least $70 or more.
However, streaming dongles that are cheap and actually offer remotes are on the rise. The Chromecast used to be the only good option for $35, but now there’s the $40 Amazon Fire TV Stick, as well as the $50 Roku Streaming Stick. Both of these offer experiences that are way more intuitive, without massively bigger price tags. Roku even offers a $30 option that, isn’t amazing, but is still more intuitive to use versus a Chromecast.
My colleagues Abner Li and Stephen Hall talked about this a bit in the most recent episode of Alphabet Scoop as well. As they pointed out, one of the other benefits of a remote is that it has a social component. Sitting down with your significant other or even with a group of friends is something you can share when using apps on the big screen – something you just can’t do on Chromecast. However, Chromecast is sometimes easier when alone, so again, the best of both worlds here.
The proof lies in the market
Google has sold millions of Chromecast dongles, and millions more Chromecast-compatible products have been sold. The technology is everywhere, and that’s a huge part of what makes it great. However, there’s a lot of proof to my argument that people want more than the Chromecast has to offer.
The biggest example for this is Vizio. You might recall that the company’s lineup of televisions in 2016 completely ditched apps and a built-in OS. Instead, it traded that for what was essentially a built-in Chromecast. The TV even shipped with a tablet remote in the box which ran Android and was based around the idea of casting the content you want from the tablet.
That seemed like the best a Chromecast experience had to offer, but in practice, it fell flat. This wasn’t due to the quality of the TVs or the included tablet remote, or even available apps. Rather, it was because of how consumers reacted. That reaction turned Vizio back to built-in TV apps on its TVs for 2017, with Chromecast functionality backing it up.
Clearly, Vizio saw that consumers wanted to control apps on their TV rather than just a phone or tablet, but it wisely saw the value Chromecast added.
Another example of this is the Roku, actually. While Roku doesn’t deliver true Chromecast functionality, we’ve seen the company add Chromecast-like features to its various products, but even without that, the numbers speak for themselves. Roku is currently the dominant force in the streaming market, and it’s not just because of the amount of content you can watch on its platform. It’s because Rokus are easy to set up, easy to buy, and most importantly, they are intuitive to use.
I’ve set up Chromecasts for people and I’ve set up Rokus for people — people who barely understand their smartphones. Teaching even the basics of a Chromecast isn’t easy for this sort of person, but a Roku basically needs no explanation, simply because it does everything as you expect it to and doesn’t require another device to do so.
Conclusion – An affordable Android TV dongle could be a game changer
Right now, the streaming market really boils down to 4 major players. There’s Roku, which leads the pack, Google, in a very close second place, Amazon, and finally, the distant fourth, Apple.
Google has kept up with Roku for quite some time, and it shows no signs of slowing, but everything has a ceiling. When you look at just Google and Roku, it could go either way, but the success of the Fire TV and even the Apple TV show a market preference – people want a traditional interface. The same argument could be made for the Chromecast’s way of doing things, but that’s the beauty of it.
Google doesn’t have to pick and choose. Android TV offers both. If this dongle, whatever it really is, runs Android TV — or the same OS under a different name, seeing as Google is ditching Android in name — we’re in for something truly great. And even if it ends up being something just for developers at I/O as some have suggested, it might hint that more is coming.
Who knows, maybe we’ll finally get that Pixel Player I’ve been asking for…