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(Chrome)casting the Spotlight on Google

(Chrome)casting the Spotlight on Google

Telling a joke is easy - being funny is not.

In my childhood home, we had stacks of VHS and Betamax tapes in the living room. Hidden behind the magnetic memories of obligatory family celebrations and recordings from broadcast television were a handful of videos that were reserved for those nights when the parents were away, the liters of Coke were open and the popcorn was fresh from the microwave. Don't worry - nothing scandalous. I'm talking about the best routines of my favorite stand-up comedians.

For fans of stand-up comedy, a good comedian can make us laugh, chortle and even stick with us long enough for us to try and repeat a joke the next morning. But a great comedian - for instance, Eddie Murphy's performance in Delirious, one of the "hidden" tapes - is magical, telling a story with interweaving jokes that gnaw at our soul and make us laugh, provoke our thoughts and entertain our soul.

For the last five or so years, the connected TV ecosystem was hosting its own comedy stage show - a Comedy Central Roast of sorts - with the TV manufacturers headlining the event. Initially, the audience was engaged, the laughs were aplenty and all eyes (and ears) were tuned into the TV manufacturers. But it soon became apparent that the TV manufacturers were each trying to outdo each other, and the laughs were becoming less consistent and more confusing to the audience.

With little fanfare, a handful of new participants (Boxee, Roku, Apple, Microsoft and Sony) sat down at tables near the stage reserved for "game consoles" and "companion devices." Google was invited onstage but was met with yawns and boos, and then promptly exited stage left, while the TV manufacturers continued their stage performance.

It soon became apparent that the game consoles and companion devices were having their own private party, telling jokes, engaging the audience and even heckling the TV manufacturers. Over time, the audience began to realize that the real entertainment was coming from the participants offstage. The onstage participants had the lights and all the seats were pointed to the stage, but many of the audience’s necks and ears were craning to figure out what was happening offstage. Even though Boxee stood up and joined those onstage, the others continued their merriment.

Suddenly, Google burst in through a side door, telling its own jokes, high-fiving the audience and sitting proudly at the table next to Apple.

When audience members are distracted - or at worst heckling - stand-up comedians have two options: ignore or engage. Comedians can bring a heckler to their knees - but the exchange itself can deflect attention away from the comedian. The TV manufacturers tried to ignore Google's reemergence, but whatever they said was overshadowed by the approval of the audience.

Apple was relatively mum about Apple TV’s sales numbers until earlier this year when Tim Cook revealed that the device had reached 13MM units sold. While those numbers are dwarfed by alternatives such as Xbox, Apple TV may have finally shed its reputation as "just a hobby." While Roku and Boxee (Box) garnered more of the attention as platforms for OTT video services, Roku has only sold 5MM devices as of March 2013. Boxee has remained mum about the number of Box units sold, but estimates put it well under 1MM. Despite a closed platform, Apple TV has quietly established a user footprint that is larger than all but the top three pay television operators (Comcast, DirecTV and Dish).

As I've written before, the most intriguing aspect of Apple TV is AirPlay. With AirPlay, the "second screen" model is redefined. Instead of thinking of the mobile device - iPad or iPhone - as a secondary, passive device to the television, the mobile device is the primary mode of interaction, with the television relegated to serving as a video-rendering device. This dual screen model places the mobile device in the center of user interaction (discovery, commerce, social interaction and advertising engagement). Before, users needed a "smart TV" that supported Internet connectivity and its own proprietary apps. With Apple TV, the "hockey puck" has its own Internet connection and orchestrates the leanback video experience with the paired mobile device.

While a formidable innovator for mobile devices, Samsung arguably has had limited success with its smart TV offering. With its recent acquisition of Boxee, it's less of a sign of Boxee's struggle to stay relevant and more of an acknowledgement that Samsung needed to change its approach to the smart TV.

Last week, Google introduced Chromecast, telling users it was possible to "Get started in 3 easy steps: plug Chromecast into any HDTV, connect it to WiFi, then send videos and more from your smartphone, tablet or laptop to your TV with the press of a button." Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

By removing the need to have "smart" TVs, Google has effectively legitimized Apple TV and AirPlay to users and developers, a quiet victory for Apple. But don't think for a moment that Google is playing nice. Chromecast calls out media playback support for a variety of protocols and formats without mentioning HLS. By focusing on the phone, tablet and laptop (instead of the television), Google will continue to play an essential role by creating a search and discovery platform for its own monetization model via display and in-stream advertising.

Back at the show, those onstage are silent as the spotlights have trained themselves on Google at the front table; Apple sits in the shadows - for the moment - but one can make out a nod in approval, with an expression of "What took you so long?"

[P.S. - I’ll share more thoughts once my backordered Chromecast arrives]