With more of a squeak than a fanfare, last week saw the official launch of Google’s Chromecast in the UK. The HDMI dongle, that plugs into your TV, looks set to compete with the likes of Apple TV, Amazon’s forthcoming set-top-box, as well as the established games consoles in the battle for the living room. But Google, I think, has one massive advantage: the user interface.
On paper, Google should be facing an uphill battle. Playstation and Xbox are long established in the living room, and are many, many times more powerful than a little video streaming device. Similarly, even compared to the Apple TV, Chromecast is underpowered – being little more than a modified Chrome OS. All it can do is receive commands from another device, and load up the video streams it is commanded to.
Where I think Google have an advantage is in terms of the user interface. Think about how you interact with other devices: Xbox and Playstation require a controller – which is great if you’re shooting your way through a warzone… but less good for browsing content (we’ve all long experienced the pain of entering text with a controller). Similarly, Apple’s TV remote is just directional buttons, alongside play and pause. Roku and other competitors are similar too.
What Google have, which is unique at the moment, is the assumption that ‘second screen’ is very much the default way to operate. The only way Chromecast can be controlled is by using a secondary device – a phone, a tablet or a computer to send content to the TV. And when it’s on TV, you can play/pause/etc using the controls on your device.
This makes infinitely more sense. Now we’re no longer in a world of 4 TV channels, having a tablet screen for navigation means we can enter search terms and browse easily – without fiddling around with sub-optimal controller or remote. And it works brilliantly – there’s no faffing about with menus on the TV screen and you can find your next video whilst watching the current one, creating a seamless viewing experience.
By using the tools we already have, Google have just created a system that works infinitely better than all of the Kinect voice and motion controls in the world. Of course – the other companies aren’t blind to it – with iOS devices and Smartglass and so on providing similar functionality… but none of it is quite so simple as one button in a toolbar sending the video to TV.
The other genius in Chromecast is only just starting to be realised. It is built on an open platform – with Google releasing a software developers kit (SDK), to enable coders to integrate Chromecast into their own apps. Because at heart the Chromecast is running Chrome OS and a HTML5 browser – making building stuff nice and easy.
This means that unlike, say, Xbox apps, it is relatively straightforward to code in support for Chromecast – and given the openness of the SDK, it means there won’t be a painful approval process for each and every supported video streaming website. For example, the Xbox YouTube app, and the Xbox Netflix app are both separate apps, that would have to be built and approved by Microsoft separately. By comparison, for Chromecast, YouTube and Netflix’s coders just have to tell the Chromecast dongle to load a particular webpage.
So expect a lot of websites to start supporting Chromecast imminently. The SDK was only opened up in February – shortly before the UK release, which is why at the moment we’re limited to a handful of websites… but the flood will eventually come.
From my own completely unscientific observations, it appears Chromecast is already selling well. On the day of launch, I went to a branch of PC World to pick one up and the promotional cardboard stand by the checkout was already empty – luckily I had one reserved. And why did I buy one? I’ve already got plenty of gadgets that can play video on my TV, but for £30? I thought I couldn’t really go wrong – as millions of other consumers will no doubt agree.
So expect Chromecast to be a huge success. The only question now is a philosophical one: is the “second screen” the tablet… or is it the TV?