Google’s TV Strategy Still Sounds Confusing

"Android TV" branding would be a strange move.

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Google TV has been in spiritual limbo for a while, but a new report by GigaOM claims that the Google TV brand will soon be officially buried, and replaced by something more Android-focused:

The move is part admission that Google TV failed, part hope that Android will eventually find its place in the living room.

Google apparently isn’t quite ready to announce the switch-over yet; a spokesperson contacted for this story declined to comment. However, an executive from a consumer electronics manufacturer that has been producing Google TV devices confirmed the rebranding in a recent conversation with GigaOM, saying: “They are calling it ‘Android TV.’”

Google TV tried to combine cable and satellite programming with Internet video and apps. Devices like the Logitech Revue and Vizio Co-Star plugged into cable boxes, and offered a single input for all kinds of content. But the interface was slow and obtuse, and the live TV integration didn’t always work properly. Google TV still isn’t widely available in televisions, and its standalone boxes are often more expensive than competing products like Roku. But despite Google’s repeated claims that TV makers and consumers would embrace the platform, it’s quite clearly been a flop.

Change is necessary. But “Android TV?” I have my doubts, at least as a consumer-facing brand.

The term “Android” is well-known to tech geeks, but not so much to mainstream users. The earliest Android phones were branded as being “with Google,” not “with Android.” On the product page for Google’s Nexus 4, the first mention of Android is way down the page, buried under references to “the best of Google.” Phone makers like Samsung barely mention Android when announcing new products. Anecdotally, I know lots of people who still think of every Android phone as a “Droid,” which is just a marketing term Verizon uses for a subset of handsets. Android as a brand does not register with mainstream users.

The next version of Android does have a brand tie-in with KitKat, so maybe Google’s trying to make the name more visible, but I don’t really see the point. For Google, it’s more important to push its own brand and services, such as YouTube, Google Play, Chrome and Maps. Those services are available whether you’re on an Android device, iPhone, Windows PC, Mac or Chromebook, and that’s how Google keeps the ad revenue flowing.

That’s why Chromecast makes more sense for Google as a TV strategy. The $35 dongle lets you send videos to the television from an Android phone, iPhone or laptop running the Chrome browser. It’s convenient for users, and it gives Google new insight into people’s viewing habits, no matter what platform they’re on. The technology can be integrated into televisions as well, so TV makers like LG and Samsung could add Chromecast capabilities without scrapping the smart TV platforms they’ve built over the years. And for developers, it doesn’t require them to create entire new apps for the television. They can just tweak their existing code.

Despite Chromecast’s virtues, Google apparently isn’t giving up on a standalone TV platform, whatever it ends up being called. As GigaOM notes, Google is updating the software to Android 4.2, which in theory will make it easier for developers to create TV apps.

But we’ve heard a version of that story a couple times before. It’s still unclear why developers–and big media companies– would pay much attention to a platform no one’s using. (Among the apps you can’t get on Google TV: Hulu Plus, HBO Go, WatchESPN,, NHL GameCenter and Vevo.) Meanwhile, Google’s $35 Chromecast is looking like a hit, becoming the top-selling device in Amazon’s electronics department. And there seems to be lots of interest from developers and media companies, including Hulu.

My wild guess on what’s going on: Google doesn’t want to completely give up on a standalone TV platform, and may even want to create its own TV box with an emphasis on gaming. So it’s going to keep building an “Android TV” platform, and allowing other companies to use it if they want. Just don’t expect much from that effort, as most TV makers look to build up their own platforms instead.