On paper, Google has all the ingredients to deliver a killer streaming TV player. It has a powerful software platform in Android, a first-rate voice assistant in Google Assistant, and a knack for designing slick software and hardware.
What we’ve ended up with instead is Android TV, a platform that’s gotten some traction on smart TVs and cable boxes, but hasn’t been a hit on standalone streaming players. Devices like the Nvidia Shield TV and the Xiaomi Mi Box S offer some niche appeal, and Android TV has always offered some interesting ideas, but it’s never met its potential as Google put more energy into Chromecast as a consumer streaming option.
This will change in 2019, says Shalini Govil-Pai, Google’s senior director of product management for Android TV. In an interview at CES Las Vegas, Govil-Pai said Google is completely rethinking the Android TV experience for consumers, and giving it much more attention overall.
“Our biggest traction definitely has been with operators and smart TVs, and it’s very fair that the OTT set-top box base has not been the biggest focus,” said Govil-Pai. “But we’re changing that in 2019. So ideally we’d like it to be at least a third of our focus going forward.”
New team, new ideas
The impetus for this change is partly Govil-Pai herself. A 12-year Google veteran, Govil-Pai had been a director for YouTube until the previous head of Android TV, Sascha Prueter, left Google last fall. Govil-Pai took the helm and her team began rethinking what was and wasn’t working.
One thing became apparent: Android TV wasn’t really capitalizing on Google’s search engine and AI chops.
“Google’s strength is in search and discovery, so we’re really focusing on how we can do the best job—that is, a Google-level job—to solve that customer pain point of ‘Hey, so much content, what do I watch?’” said Govil-Pai.
The consumer version of Android TV is now getting yet another redesign—its second in less than two years. Google isn’t ready to show off what it’s been working on, as the company is still experimenting with different approaches, but Govil-Pai said the result will involve more personalized recommendations, and will make catching up on what you’re already watching easier. In service of those ideas, Google may rework or even eliminate some current features, such as the rows of content recommendations from individual apps on the home screen.
“The goal is, how do we get the user to the content that they want, and that they’re entitled to, as fast as possible. That’s the goal,” Govil-Pai says. “If rows helps us do it, we’ll continue with rows. If there are other, more innovative ways that we get them to it, we will do that.”
Even with a new redesign, Google will still have to convince app makers to support the platform.
That’s been a challenge in the past. Some major streaming services, like DirecTV Now, don’t offer Android TV apps at all, while others have ignored Android TV features such as channel rows and universal search. Even Google hasn’t thrown full support behind Android TV, as apps like Google Photos and YouTube Music are absent from the platform.
Govil-Pai describes this as a chicken-or-egg problem, with not enough users to justify developer investment in Android TV apps. Still, she believes the problem is starting to resolve itself as Android TV gets more adoption on smart TVs and cable boxes. (Google revealed in December that the platform has “tens of millions” of users.)
“I would say that Android TV is at the point where distribution actually matters, and so we’re actually seeing a lot of traction now from app developers to develop for the platform,” she said.
App support isn’t the only longstanding issue that Google now wants to address. The company is trying to reduce the memory requirements for Android TV, so it can work on cheap hardware, and Govil-Pai says Google is working with Netflix on ways for smaller device makers to support the app on their products. (The latter issue has hamstrung devices like the Channel Master Stream+, which hasn’t been gotten Netflix to certify its hardware.) One solution, Govil-Pai said, might involve a reference design of sorts that would allow Netflix to certify any device, regardless of vendor.
“We are working very closely with Netflix on a lot of these topics,” she said.
Google is even reviving an old, mostly-forgotten feature that takes advantage of Android TV’s built-in Chromecast capabilities: With Netflix, if you launch a video through your phone with Chromecast, you can still use a physical remote to control to the corresponding app. Most other apps offer only basic playback control via the remote when you launch a video via Chromecast, which is a shame—especially for live TV apps, where you might want to use the remote for channel surfing.
“We’re doing it for all apps,” Govil-Pai says. “The reason being, as a platform, our strength for developers is their apps, so we do want to continue to lean into that.”
What about hardware?
I regret not asking Govil-Pai whether Google is working on any Android TV devices of its own (though I likely would have gotten a stock “nothing to announce” answer). Once Google has done the necessary software work, a “Pixel Player” or “Chromecast Plus” dongle would certainly help give Android TV a spark.
Govil-Pai did note, however, that Google is still working with JBL on the Link Bar, a soundbar that feeds Android TV to any television and also doubles as a Google Assistant smart speaker. Getting those capabilities just right has been a challenge, but Govil-Pai says feedback from the company’s internal testing has been excellent. The plan is to launch the device in the first half of this year.
“It’s a really complex product, and the reason we took it on is because it’s actually an amazing product,” Govil-Pai says.
As for where all of this leaves Chromecast, that’s not so clear. Govil-Pai says Chromecast “continues to be a very rock-solid offering,” designed for the specific use case of launching videos from a phone or tablet. At the same time, Android TV can do everything Chromecast can, and it’s becoming available on cheaper hardware. Perhaps that explains why I didn’t get a firm commitment on Chromecast’s future.
“We’re working through whether it makes sense for the two products to continue to live separately, given the fact that there are these two sets of use cases, and there are sets of demographics who may just want one versus the other,” Govil-Pai says.
Jared Newman has been helping folks make sense of technology for over a decade, writing for PCWorld, TechHive, and elsewhere. He also publishes two newsletters, Advisorator for straightforward tech advice and Cord Cutter Weekly for saving money on TV service.