Sony and LG Electronics have both been demonstrating their Google TV connected TV offers at CES this week and both companies have emphasised search as the major benefit that will get consumers interested. Other companies have showed the ability to search for video across all the apps contained within the Smart TV platform, like Netflix or Hulu, but the Google TV platform also provides a complete Google web search and it also flags up content stored on a Pay TV DVR in the home.
One notable feature is the ability to ask what movies are showing now on linear TV through the Pay TV operator. By interrogating the programme guide, Google TV lists the movies, with great-looking A4 sized cover art, and states how long each one has to run. This is a smart innovation that brings the simple convenience of a printed TV listings guide with the added value of immediacy. Alternatively, you can search for VOD and the software lists all the possible sources, like Amazon, Netflix or the Pay TV provider, with their prices.
Sonyâ€™s CES demonstration showed how you could search for a show like â€˜Beavis and Butt-Headâ€™ and have episodes listed season by season, going back through the years. In this case we stopped at a November 2009 airing, but discovered this particular episode was not available to rent. Netflix has proved the value of the long-tail for movies so maybe there is demand out there for archive shows. You can search while television is still playing as well, thanks to Dual View, which turns the broadcast TV into a picture-in-picture (PiP). The user can resize the PiP so it is larger or smaller and can also move it around the screen.
Sony seems to be working hardest to capture the imagination with Google TV. This year the company will release what is, in effect, a Google TV set-top box, called the â€˜Sony Media Network Box, Powered by Google TVâ€™. This can be used with any brand of television, and they do not need to be connected. A â€˜Sony Blu-ray Player, Powered by Googleâ€™, is also on its way.
Sony has its own Internet TV platform that is available on its Bravia range of televisions, of course, but it looks like Google TV is a more sophisticated option for those consumers who want to get more interactive. The Google version, which comes with the Chrome browser, offers full web search instead of basic search. It also supports Flash.
Sony is proud of the remote control it has developed to accompany the Google TV media box and Blu-ray player. Based on the demonstrations we saw at Sony and LG, which included several of the same features like universal search and listings of linear TV movies now playing, the differentiation for CE vendors using this software could come from the hardware. A spokesman for LG, demonstrating the Google TV offer, thinks the companyâ€™s Magic Remote is a compelling reason to buy its Google-based connected platform, rather than someone elseâ€™s. â€œLast year the emphasis was on function but this year it is about form as well,â€ he said.
Sony is also trying to set itself apart by providing a sub-set of the Android Market apps that have been specially optimised for its Smart TV. There are currently 114 of these optimised apps, before launch. The company is also looking to set itself apart thanks to its own content, notably the movie and television collection at Video Unlimited.
The Sony remote control has two sides, one with a full QWERTY keyboard (which is backlit) and the other with a minimal number of buttons and a mouse pad (like you get on a laptop to move the cursor with your fingers). Whilst looking at Google Maps, you can zoom in or out by â€˜pinchingâ€™ the touchpad. It provides three-axis tilting control for playing games. The Blu-ray remote control will support Google Voice Search. This is a universal remote control and it uses Bluetooth. Sony Media Remote delivers the same remote control functions but via an Android and iOS app for use on tablets.
LG Electronics has dedicated a button on the remote control to â€˜searchâ€™ and this device also features the QWERTY keyboard on the reverse. â€˜LG Smart TV with Google TVâ€™ offers many similar features: demonstrations included search for movies (and see where they are available to buy, with the same high quality A4 sized cover art), app downloads from Android Market and a full web browsing experience using Chrome. The company also showed the listings of movies playing now on linear TV, which in this case was made available via the DISH Network connected TV app.
What was notable about the DISH Network app, something that we have noticed with several Smart TV apps over the course of CES, is that once launched, you go straight into a video stream rather than a list of channels or movies. The Smart TV and apps providers are making connected TV more like the traditional TV experience where you tune to a channel. In the case of the DISH app on the LG Google TV, you go back into the channel you left but elsewhere at the show it was suggested customers can choose the default channel they â€˜tuneâ€™ to automatically when they launch the video app.
From what we can see, Google TV looks good on these two CE brands. Since day one with the first iteration of the software (version 2.0 was released last autumn), search has been flagged as the big differentiator and there has been a long debate about whether consumers want to search on their televisions. If they do, then they should like this approach to it, which is said to be comprehensive and which is definitely fast. The search results are nothing like a Google page on the PC: they are visually appealing and much more in keeping with a programme guide.
Google TV certainly looks the equal of the best Smart TV platforms, though it is not easy to see how much of the credit they can take as the â€™engineâ€™ because, at least in the case of LG Electronics, it is the CE vendor that has wrapped its own User Interface over the top. The main challenge would appear to be content. LG admits that its own LG Smart TV platform has far more. Google negotiates its own deals separately and as we know, some content owners are still suspicious of the company.
But a spokesman for LG suggested that for many of the Google TV target audience, the issue is not getting more content but being able to enjoy more of what they already pay for, referring to the fact that Google TV can integrate with the Pay TV platform. He outlined the difference between the LG Smart TV platform and LG Smart TV with Google TV as the difference between a â€˜pullâ€™ and â€˜pushâ€™ experience respectively. Google TV does more of the hard work trying to push what you might like. Neither of these CE vendors is about to say that one of their platforms is better than the other: it is a choice for different kinds of consumers.
If more leading CE vendors partner with Google then differentiation could become a challenge but there is plenty more happening at this show to outline where the battles could be fought, largely in the way the TV interacts with other devices like the PC and mobiles, the way users interact with the platform (voice and gesture recognition) and the way the Smart TV generally fits into the smart home ecosystem. And as Sony pointed out, content is a way to set a service apart (it has the advantage of having its own, which it can make available on the Google TV offer).