Google has subtly retooled its smart TV plans

Android TV, Google's long-neglected streaming-box platform, is showing new signs of life.

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Google

Google didn't make a big deal out of it,but the company has revealed a significant shift in its streaming TV strategy.

The company suddenly seems a lot more interested in Android TV, its streaming platform that's long been overshadowed by Google's Chromecast streaming dongles. During its I/O developers conference this week, Google promised cheaper Android TV hardware, a smoother path to market for device makers, better support for app developers, and a general recommitment to getting Android TV onto more streaming devices.

As a whole, these moves could turn Android TV from an afterthought into a compelling alternative to Roku, Amazon Fire TV, and Apple TV.

Android TV: A recap

I've always had a soft spot for Android TV. Like Chromecast, Android TV devices such as the Nvidia Shield TV let you use your phone or tablet as the remote for popular streaming apps like Netflix. But unlike Chromecast, these devices also offer dedicated remote controls with Google-powered voice search, and they can run proper full-screen TV apps. Given that Google has sold more than 55 million Chromecast dongles since 2013, I'd figured that Android TV's additional features would be a hit with consumers.

Instead, Android TV has floundered, for a variety of reasons:

  • Android TV was never designed to run on low-cost hardware, which meant it could never compete with less-than-$50 devices such as Roku's Streaming Stick and Amazon's Fire TV Stick. (The cheapest Android TV box to date is Xiaomi's Mi Box, which cost $69.)
  • Google always seemed to keep Android TV at arm's length. The platform never fully integrated with Google Photos, its Google Play Music app lacked the features of the mobile and web versions, and its native YouTube app was replaced with a generic (and feature-light) web version last year.
  • After launching its own Nexus Player in conjunction with Asus in 2014, Google left the job of making Android TV streaming boxes to other companies, with inconsistent results. Razer's gaming-centric Forge streaming box launched without a Netflix app, basically making it dead on arrival. Xiaomi's Mi Box never received timely software updates, and the AirTV Player was missing too many features at launch. Nvidia's Shield TV is excellent, but pricey.
  • Perhaps because of all the above issues, Android TV has never been a high priority for app makers, so it's missing some important apps such as DirecTV Now and the live TV version of Hulu. Android TV features that depend on developer support, such as home screen recommendations and an aggregated live video app, haven't reached their potential. Some device makers, including Nvidia, haven't upgraded their streaming boxes to the latest version of Android TV because app makers aren't supporting the software's core features.

Android TV isn't a complete failure. It continues to serve as the smart TV software on nearly all Sony televisions, and on a subset of televisions from other vendors such as Sharp and Hisense. It also powers some cable boxes in overseas markets, and Google told Variety that Android TV's user base is doubling every year. But when firms like IDC and Comscore measure streaming device market share, Android TV doesn't even register.

Righting wrongs

The changes coming to Android TV are an attempt to fix many of the problem areas I described above.

  • To attract developers, Google is releasing a cheap Android TV dongle, codenamed the ADT-2. It won't be available to consumers, but a limited number of app makers can get one for free.
  • According to Android Police, Google has spent the last year making performance a priority so that Android TV can run on cheaper hardware. That report says Google wants Android TV to appear on more streaming boxes, and expects several of those devices to launch later this year.
  • Also from that report: Google is developing "turnkey" software and hardware, allowing other companies to bring new Android TV devices to market faster and deliver more frequent software updates.
  • Google is partnering with JBL on an interesting hardware idea: a soundbar that doubles as an Android TV streaming box.

These commitments won't fix everything that's wrong with Android TV. Google still hasn't announced any of its own Android TV hardware, akin to its Pixel smartphones and Pixelbook laptop, and if that doesn't change, it's unclear if other vendors will do a good enough job of carrying the platform forward.

But if Google is able to bring Android TV hardware prices down and get app makers onboard, that doesn't leave much room for Chromecast, and that's all the better for Google's living-room strategy. Unlike Chromecast, Android TV devices can offer Google Assistant without a separate smart speaker, and they compete more directly with streaming boxes from Amazon, Apple, and Roku. And if more people start buying Android TV streaming devices, that could make the platform more interesting to smart-TV and cable-box makers.

I've certainly been wrong about an Android TV resurgence before, but I've always hoped the platform would find its footing. In addition to doing everything Chromecast can, Android TV has first-rate voice search, offers a promising interface for navigating through streaming apps, and allows for wild new ideas like the JBL Link Bar and Channel Master's upcoming Android TV DVR box.

Maybe Google is starting to believe in Android TV too.

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