Google TV – Hit or Miss?

Google’s march to world and web domination continues unabated. The world’s favourite search engine has had a busy twelve months, with a slew of new product announcements and the scrapping of some its less popular services, like the utterly pointless Google Wave.

The launch of Google’s latest offering, Google TV, caught my attention recently and got me thinking. According to the very slick but not very detailed online presentation, Google TV “will bring TV, apps, search and the web together in your living room.”

The technology will soon be available in the US as either a standalone Sony smart TV or a set top box developed by Logitech, named Revue. Neither of these have pending release dates locally so we will simply have to wait and see when Google’s new tech will reach the sunny shores of South Africa.

While we’re waiting, we may as well contemplate the possible impact (or lack thereof) that Google TV will have on the local market. We are assuming that, with Google’s local presence and following on the recent launch of locally-hosted YouTube, Google TV will similarly be available to South Africans.

TV in South Africa

Although the South African television market isn’t nearly as evolved as its US counterpart, we do have an incumbent that has dominated local paid-for television for over a decade – DSTV. With its selection of local and international channels, DSTV is the closest thing South Africans have to the US’ mighty cable and satellite television offerings.

On May 5th DSTV announced the launch of DSTV OnDemand, a new service that allows subscribers to its Premier bouquet to watch a selection of movies, series and major sporting events days after they are aired on TV. Subscribers can choose between on-demand viewing via the PVR decoder or an internet subscription. Currently, only MWEB, Vox Telecom, Neulogy and Cybersmart supports DSTV OnDemand, although Multichoice has indicated it is in discussions with other local ISPs to make the service more broadly available.

Potential threat?

It is unclear at present whether Google TV poses any threat to DSTV OnDemand. According to reports, Google TV requires no service cost, so once you’ve bought your Sony smart television or Logitech set-top box, you can surf, view and enjoy freely. DSTV Premier, which is the only bouquet that supports OnDemand, comes at a R500+ monthly cost, putting it well out of reach of the average local TV viewer. US prices for the two Google TV products on offer at the moment are USD1,399 for the 46″ Sony Smart TV and USD299 for Logitech’s Revue set-top box – both entirely out of reach for most South Africans.

So, Google TV is unlikely to have mass appeal locally. But will the digitally-savvy early adopters, gadget fans and assorted geeks pick up on it? Like with almost everything relating to the Internet, it all comes down to content.

The key ingredient

In the US, TV networks have embraced the Internet as a key tool in maintaining and building share of audience, and most of their popular shows are available on-demand on their websites. Having a Google TV, then, means viewers can continue to watch their favourite shows when they want to, with the added benefit of having the same flexibility and control you have on a PC now in your living room.

In contrast, local TV stations have never truly incorporated the Internet as a core part of their content delivery to viewers, to me a clear sign that the bulk of their viewers couldn’t give a damn about the Internet (or simply don’t have access to it). Add the fact that none of the US channels make their programs available to SA users, and Google TV is basically a device for watching YouTube videos in your living room while you surf Twitter and check email.

The verdict

As much as I’d like to believe in Google TV, I can’t get myself excited about it. A much more sensible addition to the South African TV landscape would be a more comprehensive rollout of Apple’s iTunes store locally – it already has all the content, its systems have been proven to be stable and reliable, and it’s a far sexier proposition that anyone with an iPod, iPhone or iPad already has access to and knows how to use.

Google will have to do better than a rehash of technology and services that have been around since TiVo came to the fore in 2003 to make it a serious contender in the TV market of the future. We’re interested to see how the US adopts this new technology, but don’t hold your breath to see Google’s latest in SA stores any time soon.