Google TV’s next chance for popularity – your cable box?

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt may not be so crazy after all. Schmidt, who often tastes feet when making public comments, was widely laughed at when he suggested in December that Google TV would appear on the majority of televisions seen in stores this summer. It seemed particularly ludicrous given Google TV falling out of the gates.

However, after seeing the Google TV products shown at CES, seeing Google TV pop up isn’t nearly as outlandish as it appeared weeks ago. The funny thing is that a great opportunity for Google TV to become prevalent in homes – not just on retail store shelves – won’t be because of anything shown by LG or Sony last week. It’s through semiconductor maker Marvell.

At the moment, Google TV is only available in one of three ways: purchasing a new television, set-top box, or Blu-ray player with Google TV integrated into the software. This is problematic because new television sets are expensive and not replaced frequently enough for GTV to gain immediate traction. Why spend $ 1,000 on a new TV now when the $ 1,500 TV you bought 2 years ago is still working fine? The same goes for Blu-Ray players, which are available in a PS3 or already purchased previously. The set-top box is equally troublesome because it requires the consumer to go out and seek the device, and then add yet another gadget a home entertainment set-up. The distribution model for Google TV doesn’t lend itself to widespread adoption in 2012.

Marvell has the potential to change that because its distribution model could remove the need for users to seek out Google TV. Instead, consumers will discover GTV automatically and learn to use the software. That’s because Marvell, could sell its reference design Google TV set-top box to television providers, who will then turn around and install those boxes in the homes of their subscribers. A person I met at CES said that cable companies could use Marvell’s system as a smarter cable box, and another rep from Marvell who I contacted confirmed that possibility (though both declined to say which companies have been approached).

Cable providers aggressively fought against Google TV because of its potential to disrupt their entertainment options, but those companies might be more receptive to Google TV if they could control it to power their smart TV options. This is a long longshot, but one that could reap big benefits for GTV adoption if it happens.

Cable subscribers receive a box from their service provider that is plugged-in and immediately delivers hundreds of channels. But what if those same set-top boxes could also deliver apps that add more value to the viewing experience. The same box that shows someone ESPN and HBO On Demand would also show notifications from Thuuz Sports and IMDb information for Boardwalk Empire. These would be more evolved devices that could help cable companies offer more options to consumers without forcing them to add more devices to the mantle.

By eliminating the current hurdles of getting in the home, Google TV would get a massive boost in user share through cable boxes. Instead of trying to sell customers a new television or set-top box they don’t need, Google could simply focus on selling them on the idea of using those nifty features already built-in to the same cable box they already have. It would be a potential backdoor into millions of homes over time.


The problem with the GTV-in-cable-box model is that it puts control firmly in the hands of cable providers, so it’s both a dream and a nightmare for Google TV’s prospects. Mobile phone carriers have slowed the progress and benefits Android provides consumers, and the same could happen if companies like Comcast or Time Warner get in bed with Google TV. What would be the incentive for these companies to promote a Netflix app in their set-top boxes? They’re too busy pushing standard on-demand and pay-per-view options, not embracing a company that has inspired millions to not use those services.

Cable companies acting in their own interest are likely to stand in the way of providing all entertainment and search options to consumers, a cornerstone of what Google hoped to create with Google TV. Would it be worth it for the company to see Google TV in the homes of millions more users if it came at the bringing the web and the television together in a captivating way?

Marvell demonstrated its reference design at CES and said that a company could easily incorporate it into their own cable box. Should Marvell manage to bring a cable company on-board, it could potentially be a huge win (or loss) for Google TV. A Marvell-sourced set-top box designed for a television provider might have a shot at getting in those homes because consumers wouldn’t have to pay for anything (other than the equipment fee that operators are already charging). Under that set-up, Google TV might eventually appear in enough homes to make Eric Schmidt not look so foolishly optimistic.

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