Android TV to get a major overhaul at just the right time

Google's living-room operating system doubles down on browsing across apps, and Netflix is on board.

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Credit: Jared Newman / TechHive

Google was ahead of the curve when it launched Android TV in 2014. Instead of just presenting users with a list of streaming-app icons, Android TV's big idea involved a row of recommendations from across different apps. The hope was that users wouldn't have to leave the home screen to find something to watch.

But being first isn't the same as being best, and over the past few years, other platforms such as Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, and Roku have all done a better job with cross-app recommendations. Meanwhile, Android TV's approach didn't get much buy-in from app makers, and the platform as a whole seemed to stagnate.

Later this year, Google will take another shot at browsing across streaming apps with a major overhaul for Android TV. The upcoming Android O update gets even more aggressive about putting TV shows and movies directly on the home screen, sparing users the effort of looking inside each individual app. And this time, there's a better chance that app makers will embrace it.

Out with apps, in with "Channels"

Whereas Android TV used to stuff all recommendations into one row on the home screen, Android O gives each app its own row, or "Channel." Scrolling downward, you might see one Channel for trending YouTube videos, another for HBO recommendations, and another for NBA game recaps. Each app can even have multiple Channels, allowing for separate movie and TV lists from Google Play, or separate live and on-demand listings from Sling TV. There's also a "Watch Next" row that pulls in new episodes from across different apps.

This new approach seems like a nod to the channel guide you'd find on a cable box, but with dynamic suggestions instead of a static programming schedule. It can also be customized, in that users can shuffle the order of channels and hide unwanted ones.

As for whether streaming services will embrace this system, Netflix might be an encouraging bellwether. The company is notoriously skittish about displaying videos outside its own apps, and it doesn't participate in Android TV's current recommendations system. The company now tells me it will offer a recommendations Channel in Android O, and it was even part of a demo during the Google I/O developer conference last week.

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Netflix has confirmed that it will have a Channel on the new Android TV home screen.

What triggered the change of heart? My guess is that like other streaming services, Netflix wants to avoid diluting its brand and giving up control over the user experience. With Android O, Netflix still gets a strong presence on the home screen, and it can define the recommendations that appear there. And because each Channel still leads into a proper app, services like Netflix can offer related videos after the initial selection.

Related: Dish Network is quietly putting Android TV in hotel rooms

Also worth noting: Services that already support recommendations on Android TV should appear as Channels with little or no extra effort by the developers. Running a beta version of Android O on Google's Nexus Player, I already have Channels for HBO Go, Hulu, Crackle, and Plex. (I wouldn't recommend trying this at home since the beta is pretty buggy at the moment.)

If there's a downside to all these new Channels, it's in the freewheeling nature of Android TV, which lets any app provide recommendations in any manner it pleases. This is beneficial in some ways, as it allows nerdier apps like Plex to share a spotlight with major content sources like Netflix, but it could get messy if the quantity and type of recommendations varies wildly between apps.

androidohome2 Jared Newman / TechHive

Users can disable or reorder any Channel on the Android TV home screen.

Google also seems to go out of its way to make apps themselves harder to launch. In the current beta, you can only pin six app icons to the home screen. Other apps and games live inside an app drawer, accessible by long-pressing the remote's home button or clicking the on-screen "apps" icon. Google's commitment to the Channels concept is admirable, but hiding apps and games behind a second menu could just confuse people.

Android TV's rebound

What does all this mean for the future of Android TV? I've written previously that Google's living-room platform seems to be experiencing a resurgence, with Android's flexibility appealing to device makers like Nvidia and Sling TV. Google now says the platform is getting traction in cable boxes (at least outside the United States) and smart TVs, which together account for the majority of Android TV devices, Variety reports. Overall, Google is seeing one million new device activations every two months.

Still, Android TV is barely a blip in the streaming player market, where it tends to be overshadowed by Google's Chromecast devices. Android TV didn't even show up in a December survey by ComScore, which measured U.S. household penetration for streaming boxes and sticks. (Part of the problem is that few Android TV players exist, and Google's own offering, the Asus-made Nexus Player, is nearly three years old.)

I suspect a bigger push for Android TV is on the horizon. Google has already said that Android TV devices running version 6.0 and higher will get Google Assistant, the same voice control tech that powers the company's Home connected speaker. It's not hard to imagine some new Google Android TV hardware to showcase those voice control chops and the new home screen. After a few years in obscurity, it's about time Google put Android TV on the map.

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