How Google and Apple Will Control TV
In the global business marketplace, Silicon Valley is a shark, a killing machine hardwired with powerful instincts for tracking down sick, weak and slow businesses, and devouring them without hesitation.
CES is upon us. In other words, it's Shark Week. And Silicon Valley smells blood in the water.
In fact, if you track the record of the great majority of consumer electronics products launched at CES, it's mostly just chum.
About 2,800 exhibitors will hawk mostly down-market, obscure products this year that won't compete successfully against the biggest brands.
Last year, for example, more than 100 new touch tablets were announced at CES. Remember the Azpen, Enspert, Hanvon, Kno and Vilix tablets? Neither do I.
Last year's tablet feeding frenzy points toward the future of TV. If you're not Apple or Google, you'd better be one of those sucker fish that clings on. Within the next three years, everyone else is going to be lunch.
Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt said last month that by the summer of this year, the majority of TVs available in stores will have Google TV "embedded."
It's not exactly clear what Schmidt meant, or how accurate his prediction is likely to be. Google TV is a boob-tube specific version of its Android mobile platform running a special version of its Chrome browser. Regardless, Google is sinking its teeth into television, and it's likely to keep chomping away until it gets its fill.
Google this week announced new hardware partners for its TV initiative, including the two S. Korean giants, Samsung and LG -- the world's first and second biggest-selling TV makers. The third biggest seller, Japan's Sony, was a Google TV partner from the beginning. So all the biggest TV brands will start selling Google TVs this year.
Google also said they're being supported by Taiwan chipset maker MediaTek and U.S. chipset maker Marvell. The new chip makers replace Intel. And, of course, Vizio, which was an early partner, is still on board with its box.
Google claims there are more than 150 Google TV-specific apps. Google also acquired Sage TV in the summer of 2011. Sage TV makes Tivo-like digital video recorder (DVR) software for recording shows.
Meanwhile, Sony is on record as saying that its Google TV-supporting television sets are among its best sellers.
Google TV will start making serious inroads into the market this year, and will probably surprise a lot of people.
Google is a great white shark circling and thrashing around in clear view. But lurking out there somewhere is an even scarier creature -- Apple.
Rumors about an Apple TV set have circulated for years. Most recently, it became clear in Steve Jobs, the recent biography of the late Apple founder by Walter Isaacson, that the rumors are true. Apple intends to unveil a new TV, and probably this year.
The rumor mill says Apple is probably working on a 50-inch TV. Other rumors suggest smaller-screen TVs.
Other rumors say Apple has been securing the rights to TV content that the company can offer in season packages and a la carte. In particular, Apple is thought to be pursuing the rights to sell U.S. and international sports programming.
Landing content deals has been hard for Apple, according to insiders. After seeing what Apple did to the music industry, Hollywood executives are holding on to their wallets when Apple is around. Still, Apple's mission, which appears to be becoming the content consumption conduit of the lucrative, profitable end of the market, combined with market power and billions in cash, will eventually win the day.
This model for selling content is very much in line with global trends, which see subscribers to cable and satellite networks leaving, and instead opting for Internet-based services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime.
Why the coming Google and Apple TV takeover is good
Google's model is to provide low-cost, contextual advertising-supported intelligence, apps, recording and Internet connectivity to the leading TV brands. Their goal is to have the TV you were going to buy anyway have Google inside.
Apple's model is to sell you a TV that is really a giant Siri-controlled iPad, and ideally gets its best TV shows and movies through iTunes. Their goal is to get you to buy an Apple TV instead of the TV you were going to buy anyway.
These two approaches mirror the open/fragmented, closed/integrated binary choice Google and Apple present to smartphone buyers.
Either way, all roads lead to Silicon Valley.
Of course, the addition of compute power, apps and Internet access are perfectly inevitable for TVs over the next few years. But Silicon Valley giants Google and Apple are in the best positions to fix the four ways that TV is broken.
The era of cable and satellite is ending. The predatory idea of giving you a massive number of channels for a massive number of dollars can't survive the Internet era. It's identical to the now-dead CD music model, where you had to buy an $18 disc to own the one song you wanted.
The future of TV is both a la carte and eclectic, with viewers drawing programming from Internet services like Netflix, Hulu and YouTube, as well as social networks and directly from companies like Google, Apple and Amazon.
TV user interfaces are, as a category, the clunkiest, most confusing and out-of-control interfaces in the history of consumer electronics. The average family has multiple overlapping, over-complex remotes that they don't know how to program or use.
The onscreen menu and selection systems provided mostly by cable or satellite companies look like they were designed by the government. The North Korean government.
The overall user interface experience for TV users is frustrating, confusing and totally unacceptable.
3. Social Disconnection
Culture is social. TV is culture. (Sorry, but it is.) Viewers are spontaneously rolling their own kludgy workarounds to the social isolation of television. As millions of people watch TV, they're socializing at the same time with laptops, tablets and smartphones.
During major TV "events," like the Oscars or the Super Bowl, Twitter is on fire with people instinctively making TV social.
Google+, Twitter and Facebook -- and direct sharing of movies so that distant friends can watch together while chatting or seeing each other on video -- all these features must and will be built into TV.
4. Mass Advertising
Football games tend to be supported by advertising for beer and tires. Daytime soap operas advertise floor wax and weight-loss products. News programs advertise pharmaceutical drugs. Children's cartoons advertise artificially colored junk foods.
Beyond crude gender- and age-related stereotypes, TV advertising is broad-brush, mass-produced guesswork.
The future of television advertising is massively contextual. When Google advertises to you, it will target those ads based on your purchase history, interests, geographic location, social group and even possibly your web-searching history.
Before you cry "Big Brother," be aware that people want contextual advertising whether they know it or not. The reason is that the TV will know what you want before you do, and offer it up on a silver platter. If you love sushi, and a TV commercial tells you about a new Japanese restaurant in your area (because the TV knows who you are and what you want), it's a message you want to hear.
Google and Apple are the two companies in the best position to fix what's broken about television.
So brace yourself for a lot of chatter this week and this year about TV, as the industry thrashes around in search of the future everyone knows is coming.
But be aware that the future of television will be controlled by Silicon Valley. Not the Asian TV makers. Not the global chip makers. And not even Hollywood.
The future of TV is going to be pretty awesome. And TV tomorrow is going to look a lot like smart phones today: Google and Apple controlling a media platform of apps, streaming content, Internet access and social networking.
And all those companies at CES hawking TVs and TV-related gadgets and services that compete with Google and Apple? Well, they're going to need a bigger boat.
[For more blogs, stories, photos, and video from the nation's largest consumer electronics show, check out PCWorld's complete coverage of CES 2012.]