After spinning its wheels for years trying to cram intelligence into TVs and set-tops, Google has landed on a far smarter approach to cracking into the living room with Chromecast: a simple, low-cost video-streaming device that treats televisions as stupid display devices, not computers.
Essentially, Chromecast is a USB-size wireless receiver whose only job is to pull video from the Internet (or a web content from a laptop) and display it on an HDTV. That’s all: There’s no on-screen guide. No storage. No apps. No dedicated remote control.
In a word, it’s stupid. Which is smart — all the intelligence and processing power for Chromecast is handled on external devices or in the network cloud. The remote control is your smartphone, tablet or PC, which is an easier way to search and browse for content anyway.
That translates into two clear benefits: Chromecast is cheap (retailing for $35), since it doesn’t require extra processing or memory chips to handle a guide or other apps; and is a platform that promises to let content providers easily plug into.
Credit for the “so dumb it’s smart” take on Chromecast belongs to VideoNuze analyst Will Richmond. If Chromecast ends up being successful, “instead of TVs continuing to become ‘Smart TVs,’ they are going to become dumb yet again,” he wrote a blog post.
Smart TVs have languished from relatively low usage, stemming from a dearth of content. Even Apple TV and Roku have been relatively slow starters, with Netflix single-handedly responsible for driving much of the usage for those boxes.
Google’s Chromecast is even cheaper than Apple TV ($99) and Roku 3 ($89), but the real key is that Google can on-board content partners in a snap. Instead of forcing a cable channel or website to develop software for a smart TV or set-top box, all they need to do is tweak an existing app. Bam — instant Internet TV.
That means Chromecast could potentially solve the connected-TV content chicken-and-egg problem by (a) quickly establishing a large user base, thanks to the low price point and out-of-the-box YouTube and Netflix support and (b) then attracting other content sources like Hulu Plus, HBO Go and WatchESPN.
Here’s another incentive to get web-video providers on board: Chromecast can sling any web page or web video to the TV. I tested out HBOGo.com with Chromecast and it worked great. But having it directly in HBO Go apps or embedded in the website would make it even smoother.
Granted, there are some downsides to the Chromecast approach. For starters, it requires you have an iPhone, iPad, Android device, Mac or Windows 7 computer — but these days, the large majority of U.S. consumers has one of them. Meanwhile, the crushing demand in the first day of the Chromecast’s release was largely because of the Netflix promo, which was quickly depleted — the offer of three free months of Netflix for new or existing subscribers, a $24 value.
But elegantly simple Chromecast stands to be the way Google finally gets on TV. Company execs insist that they are still continuing the three-year-old Google TV project, which hinges on convincing consumer electronics makers to embed a heavy stack of software into their products. Sure, having the full Android operating environment in a set-top or smart TV lets you do more — run games, interactive apps and more.
Really, though, people just want to watch video on their TV. It’s a lot more natural to use other smart devices to control what’s displayed on the TV, and Chromecast is a tacit acknowledgement of that fact.