By Jon Fortt
May 24, 2010

Consumers don’t want the web on TV – they want a better TV experience

As you might have seen last week, my Techmate sparring partner Michael and I got into it a bit about Google TV. He liked the idea, I didn’t.

I still don’t.

At the time when we shot our video segment on the subject (see below), I had heard rumors about the announcement, and the details weren’t  yet clear – but I was prepared to be unimpressed. History has made me skeptical of these TV boondoggles. The powers that be in the tech industry have tried for more than a decade to crack the television, generally by unveiling some kludgy way to surf the web, see info widgets, or download video from the couch.

The list of failures is as long as it is prestigious: Microsoft (MSFT) had WebTV. Apple (AAPL) has Apple TV. Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) killed a line of smart TVs; its MediaSmart set top boxes haven’t done much in the marketplace. Intel (INTC) announced plans for a Liquid Crystal on Silicon smart TV chip in 2004, then killed it months later after admitting it would be a money-loser. There are plenty more examples, but you get the idea:

Silicon Valley + TV dreams = Fail.


Here’s my opinion: People don’t buy televisions to surf the web. They don’t buy them to access a library of sports and weather widgets. People buy TVs to … wait for it … watch TV. And most of the bright TV ideas that have come out of tech companies don’t do much to improve that experience.

Think about it. Every major success in TV technology has come because it made the viewing experience better. Color TVs made shows more realistic. HD TVs improved the picture. DVRs like Tivo (TIVO) let us easily record multiple shows and pause live broadcasts. None of the products (or would-be products) above did that. At best, they offered minor tweaks to the viewing experience, at the price of another piece of hardware and another tangle of wires behind the entertainment center.

[cnnmoney-video vid=/video/technology/2010/05/19/f_tm_google_io_html5.fortune/]

From what I can tell, Google (GOOG) TV isn’t much different. Google has teamed up with Intel, Sony (SNE) and Logitech (LOGI) to give us yet another stab at the web-enabled television. In its official announcement, Google describes Google TV as “the best of TV and the best of the web in one seamless experience.”

Oh boy. Warning bells are already going off in my head. My best TV experience is leaning back and watching a huge screen from 20 feet away. My best web experience is leaning forward and interacting with a medium-sized screen from two feet away. And Google’s going to somehow combine the two? I don’t think so.

Let’s get the web thing out of the way first. There is no way Google TV will bring the best of the web. Reading news on a TV screen – scrolling up and down the page – from 20 feet away is not a good experience. I’ve tried it. Twitter searches? Also not good. Shopping on Amazon (AMZN)? No thank you.

What about the TV experience? Well, here’s how Google claims it will make the TV experience better: by adding search to the remote control, and providing access to YouTube videos. Instead of using a remote to enter the channel I want, I can use a keyboard or phone to type in the name of a show.

Okay. My Tivo already does this. Come to think of it, I have an iPhone app, iTV, that searches for shows and automatically commands my Tivo to record them, even if I’m not at home. I can also play YouTube videos, download Amazon videos on demand, and video photos from my home network. I rarely use these features, because my wife and I watch the same handful of shows – there’s little need to search for stuff.

One advantage Google TV appears to have over Tivo is price – my Tivo comes with a subscription fee. But unlike Google TV, the Tivo also does stuff that improves my viewing experience – it records and pauses TV shows, and makes recommendations.

If Google adds features like that, or comes up with new ones that actually make TV better, it could have something; and because Google TV includes a software platform, it can grow from here. But so far, this looks like yet another lame Silicon Valley attempt to make a quick buck off of couch potatoes. Maybe when Michael buys his Google TV and falls in love with it, he can invite me over and convince me otherwise.

But Michael is more of a web guy; he watches video on computers and doesn’t own a TV. I seriously doubt this product is going to convince him, or many other people, to do it all on a big screen.

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