Every so often, some enterprising computer company will claim they’ve finally fixed the TV. They’ll talk about how they’ve turned a dumb terminal into a smart computing platform that extends your work and play to a gigantic screen. Then, we’ll watch as the idea flops because they fail to line up content deals or wind up delivering a confusing, haphazard experience. That was the story of Google TV, which became the laughing stock of the industry after Google chairman Eric Schmidt bet that it would ship on the majority of new televisions in 2012. (He was sorely wrong.)
But what these companies seem to be realizing as their content deals fail is that they don’t need to “fix” TV quite yet. The proper opening salvo may simply be to put desirable content in front of people who use television the same way as ever.
Enter Android TV.
According to documents obtained exclusively by The Verge, Google is about to launch a renewed assault on your television set called Android TV. Major video app providers are building for the platform right now. Android TV may sound like a semantic difference — after all, Google TV was based on Android — but it’s something very different. Android TV is no longer a crazy attempt to turn your TV into a bigger, more powerful smartphone. "Android TV is an entertainment interface, not a computing platform," writes Google. "It’s all about finding and enjoying content with the least amount of friction." It will be "cinematic, fun, fluid, and fast."
What does that all mean? It means that Android TV will look and feel a lot more like the rest of the set top boxes on the market, including Apple TV, Amazon’s Fire TV, and Roku.
Google’s new vision for Android TV is less ambitious and easier to understand. The company is calling for developers to build extremely simple TV apps for an extremely simple set-top-box interface. While Android still lives under the hood, the interface will consist of a set of scrolling "cards" that represent movies, shows, apps, and games sitting on a shelf. You use a remote control with a four-way directional pad to scroll left and right through different suggestions, or up and down through different categories of content, each with their own shelves. Much like on other set top boxes, each item will be like a miniature movie poster or book cover, and you’ll pick the one you want. The controller will also have Enter, Home, and Back buttons to help get around, and there will be "optional" game controllers.
Android TV will also support voice input and notifications — though Google is encouraging developers to only use notifications in very limited cases. In total, Android TV is remarkably similar to Amazon's just-released, Android-based Fire TV.
What makes it a Google product is that Android TV will suggest those pieces of content on the homescreen itself. While you can dive through a collection of apps and games if you want, the goal isn’t to have a user select an app like Hulu and then browse through things to watch. Google wants to proactively recommend things to you — including the ability to resume content you started watching on a phone or tablet — as soon as you turn your TV on.
"Access to content should be simple and magical," reads one Google document, which adds that it should never take more than three clicks or gestures to go from the homescreen to enjoying a new piece of content. Even search appears to be secondary to intuitively understanding what you want and delivering it as soon as possible, though search will still be one of Android TV’s primary tools. In addition to universal search, pressing the Search button on the controller will let you search from within individual apps as well.
Assuming the documentation we’ve reviewed is correct, Google is currently courting select app developers to create apps and games for Android TV and encouraging them to create apps with consistent interfaces. Screenshots we’ve obtained show Google’s own apps like Play Movies, YouTube, and Hangouts; but also third party apps like Vevo, Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, and games.
"Android TV is Android, optimized for the living room consumption experience on a TV screen," writes the company, but the focus is on simplicity for now. Google is stripping away unneeded features like telephony, cameras, touchscreen support and near-field communication to keep developers focused, and handing them ready-made interfaces where they can hopefully just plug in shows, games, photos, music, and films. Perhaps there’s room for inventive new applications that harness the big screen, but the entry point is people lazing on the couch.
The odd thing about Android TV, though, is that Google already had a strategy for such couchsurfing: the company's wildly popular $35 Chromecast HDMI dongle. Google had been sending the message that developers didn't actually need to build apps for TV at all — simply special webpages for TV that could receive commands from a phone. The Verge understands that the Chromecast won't go away, so that may mean developers will have to build two different interfaces, one for Chromecast and one for Android TV.
Android TV may also send mixed messages to Google's premiere hardware partners — like LG, which is building webOS into all of its new televisions. Earlier reports suggested Google would build Android TV itself, which would put it in direct competition with its hardware partners. Those partners may have to choose between supporting a new version of Android or trying to own the living room themselves.
For now, Android TV might not sound any more compelling than a Roku, an Apple TV, an Amazon Fire TV, or, for that matter, an Xbox One or PlayStation 4. And after the utter failure of Google TV, many will not be willing to give Google the benefit of the doubt. But as Amazon is currently proving, there's still a desire out there for dead-simple set top boxes that stream compelling content. Google still wants the living room, and Android TV could be a foot back in the door.
Google declined to comment for this story.