Google TV, the search company’s troubled internet-television service, will soon be getting a reboot, its executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, hinted on Saturday.
Speaking after delivering Friday’s MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh International TV Festival, Mr Schmidt said Google was in discussions with all the major UK broadcasters ahead of a European launch of set-top boxes using its software early next year.
The service, which uses the same Android operating system that is used in smartphones, brings a web browser to the TV set and is designed to bring to the living room a trove of internet video from sites such as YouTube, which Google owns.
But Google has struggled to secure support from several key broadcasters in the US and sales of Google TV boxes from electronics manufacturers such as Sony and Logitech were below expectations.
Mr Schmidt admitted that the first version of Google TV, which was released last autumn, has “not been a huge success”, something he blamed on long TV product replacement cycles and the fact that it was a “beta” or test version.
“I think it's a beta product,” he said. “Google typically brings out beta versions, and they’re not for the faint of heart, and I think that’s what you saw. We were not able to get the product perfect before we shipped it.”
Logitech was forced to cut the price of its Google TV-based Revue device twice from $300 to $100 during its first nine months on sale.
In spite of the slow start, Google has continued to develop the service, working on a redesigned interface that is easier to use without a complicated remote control.
Mr Schmidt said that Logitech and Sony were both still “on board” for Google TV, with “many more [partners] coming”. “Wait shortly for an announcement,” he said.
He predicted that Google TV would move from a standalone set-top box to being incorporated within all brands of television sets within five years.
“Virtually all the television manufacturers on their very high end will eventually adopt Google TV … or perhaps one of the competitors that will emerge,” he said. “We know this space exists. The issue is getting that started, getting the applications built and so forth, and that’s taken quite a while.”
Industry analysts have been critical of Google TV thus far.
“This is a device that is mired in miscommunication and misperception,” said Nigel Walley of UK media consultancy Decipher. “Seasoned professionals are not clear what it actually does … There is very little new and innovative in Google TV.”
In the UK, Google TV will be competing with YouView, an internet-TV joint venture between the UK’s free-to-air broadcasters, including the BBC and ITV, alongside leading broadband providers.
Where Google TV’s service keeps broadcast and internet video separate, YouView will attempt to blend the two into a unified experience, as Virgin Media’s recent Tivo and British Sky Broadcasting’s SkyAnytime+ already do. Google TV also offers full unrestricted access to the open web, unlike the “walled gardens” of Tivo, SkyAnytime+ and YouView.
Google’s recent acquisition of Motorola Mobility, primarily a smartphone maker, also brought with it one of the leading US providers of cable television set-top boxes.
Mr Schmidt said it was too early to answer questions about what Google might do with that. Although some analysts expect Google to divest that part of the business, Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of WPP, this week said that he was worried by the potential for the search company to gather viewing data and undercut traditional forms of TV advertising.
Ian Maude, internet analyst at Enders, said that securing more support from content owners would be key to making Google TV a success.
“Until you have a viable platform with some momentum behind it, a lot of content providers will be reluctant to commit,” Mr Maude said. “So you end up with them offering big upfront guarantees to content companies to sign up. Google has deep pockets.”
Google is not the only large technology company to struggle to break into the living room. Last autumn, Apple launched the second generation of its Apple TV set-top box after the first version achieved limited popularity.
This week it emerged that Apple has stopped renting low-cost digital episodes of TV shows to Apple TV, as media companies moved back towards selling “download to own” copies. Apple TV has limited storage capacity and so relies on streaming one-off rentals or pulling in downloaded content from another computer in the home.
On Friday, Mr Schmidt paid tribute to Steve Jobs, who this week stood down as chief executive of Apple as he struggles with illness.
“He is the only person I’ve ever known who’s actually been able to merge the two worlds completely, with an artist’s eye as well as the definition of what great engineering is,” said Mr Schmidt, who served on Apple’s board for three years.