Google’s Chromecast streaming dongle is a year old today – so as we Cast a video of some candles being blown out, perhaps it is a good moment to ask if the device has lived up to its potential.
In terms of pure sales, it is easy to call the Chromecast a success. Though it arrived somewhat later in the UK (it only arrived in March), it is easy to call it a success. Over a million people, including over 100,000 in the UK alone have picked up the £30 dongle because hey, why wouldn’t you when the price is so good?
Google’s stroke of genius was in realising that there’s no need to do everything on the TV screen. Rather than faff about with on screen menus to load up videos and such (like we had seen on previous streaming devices), it is much easier to use the device that we carry around in our pockets or have on our laps, and to wirelessly beam the content we want to the TV.
As such, watching videos from YouTube, iPlayer and a bunch of other content providers has become a breeze. Heck, you can even transform your TV into a second monitor by casting your computer screen – which is brilliant when you want to show off photos or display a map without everyone hunching around a smaller screen.
This said – and though I swear by my Chromecast – I’m not sure it has reached its full potential. Despite the huge success, compared to the millions of mobile apps the appetite for supporting Chromecast amongst different providers in severely limited. Whilst a couple of heavyweights, the BBC and obviously YouTube are on board, where is everyone else? Where is ITV and Channel 4? What about Vimeo or Ustream? (I expect we’ll see Twitch added to Chromecast’s roster very soon indeed).
So how can we explain this anaemic support amongst content providers?
The first thing to blame is Google itself. Google was bewilderingly slow at opening up the Chromecast to third party developers. Whilst app developers could get stuck in and build Android apps from the beginning, it is only recently that Google has granted most developers access to the API (which lets their apps talk to Chromecast).
For about the first six months of Chromecast’s life, only a handful of apps were supported: the aforementioned YouTube and iPlayer, as well as Netflix and Hulu (the American iPlayer equivalent) – clearly as a result of high-level contact between the companies, and not on a level that the bedroom programmer or even smaller companies could ever hope to do. Quite why it Google deemed it within their interests to keep things restricted, I’m not so sure.
Perhaps one of the things stopping content providers from enthusiastically backing Chromecast is the relative lack of flexibility with what it can do. Looking at the providers that currently support the device, they do not need to rely on adverts. The BBC is funded by the license fee so doesn’t need to sell you something when you watch Sherlock, and Netflix already has your £6/month, and as you’re willingly handing over cash for their content, it doesn’t need to show you adverts either.
The trouble for other video services – like ITV Player. If you watch it in a small browser window, they can plaster adverts around the edge. If you watch it on your TV, they lose that opportunity to sell you stuff – unless they want to do video adverts, which everyone hates.
Videos are becoming more interactive too. If you watch any of the professional and semi-professional YouTube channels out there you’ll notice not only how sophisticated bedroom production has become, but also how clever the videos are. Links to other videos and websites can be overlaid on top of videos – so that at the end of many videos you can be prompted in the video to click a particular place on the screen to go to another video. None of this is possible on the TV and whilst this may not matter to Google, which owns both Chromecast and YouTube, it might cause third parties to think twice.
Another stalling point could simply be adoption and standards: Chromecast isn’t the only game in town – there are tonnes of competing platforms for getting video content on your telly: from the likes of Apple TV, Miracast, and Smart TVs, to games consoles. Heck, even the likes of Sky, YouView and Freesat are essentially competitors when it comes to what you watch your TV, and platforms that can be developed for. So if you’re a content producer, how would you know which platforms it is important to support to maximise the number of people who can watch your content… when you only have finite resources and can’t develop for everything? Though a million is certainly a big number, it isn’t a huge one.
This could change quickly. Google is certainly working on growing its market share, so it can be in a position where developers will be encouraged. Android TV, which was announced last month is a TV streaming box that will come with Chromecast built into it. So as we see more Android TV sets or plug-in boxes sold, Chromecast will become an increasingly viable platform.
If the industry was smart though… and worked in the interests of the consumer, all of the major companies would work together to come up with a common streaming standard that can be built into all of their products, much like how MP3s will now play on any device, and how in the old days you knew that a CD would play in a CD player whether it was made by Sony or Phillips or whoever. In an ideal world we wouldn’t need one box to stream Apple content to, and another for Google, but we’d be able to cast stuff from our phones through to our Xbox, Chromecast or Amazon Fire TV – which would all be using the same technology.
The tech industry can only usually support one or two big standards: its why Blackberry and Windows Phone struggle for apps as developers first build for iOS and Android. We’re not going to see widespread support for Chromecast – or any other streaming box – until either consumers all decide to buy the same dongle or box, or the industry decides to get its act together.