Google's secret weapon for getting inside our homes and deeper within the fabric of our daily lives is not smart appliance maker Nest or even its ubiquitous Android operating system. It's a $35 HDMI stick that lets everybody else in the tech industry do all the hard work. The Chromecast, which Google refreshed today with a 2.0 version for video and a new device solely for audio streaming, has sold 20 million units since 2013. And the expanded product family is poised to continue sucking up key infrastructure in the home media system thanks to its low-cost and ever-expanding feature set, which now includes Spotify support and universal search.
By providing a stripped-down tool instead of an all-in-one solution, Google is able to serve as the interface between apps and hardware. Plus, Google doesn't have to worry about where the media comes from or what software controls it. The Chromecast is a no-frills device — you just tap its icon in whatever app you're looking at and the Chromecast moves, or "casts," the image to your TV. The dongle's success can be measured by copycat products like Amazon's Fire Stick and Roku's Streaming Stick. While Amazon has never disclosed sales figures for its Fire Stick, Roku only last year hit 10 million devices sold, making the Chromecast a comparable runaway success.
Google is able to route users without worrying about the before or the after
Chromecast, as an infrastructure tool and not a content machine, is a tried-and-true strategy for Google: provide the piping, and it won't matter much what products or services plug in or what comes out on the other end. It's similar in ways to the core philosophy behind Google search, which made the company an integral backbone to the modern web. This time, however, Google is using a small, cheap piece of hardware to put itself between you and all of the music, television, movies, and games you have flying back and forth across your in-home Wi-Fi network.
Google's streaming device is also a cheap and effective alternative to buying what might be just the best option out of a bunch of so-so products. If you wanted a TV with streaming apps like Netflix, you'd have to buy either one with clunky smart TV functionality or a TV alongside a streaming box that could cost as much as $100 to $200. The Chromecast was one of the first devices that turned a dumb home product into a smart one without creating the feeling that you were buying a version of a DVD player or video game console.
The same now holds true for music. If you wanted a wireless home sound system before, you'd have to look into a higher-end brand, settle on a Bluetooth-enabled model, or fall back on a company like Sonos, which makes a great speaker tied to a lackluster mobile app. Chromecast Audio lets you wire up old-school speakers and pull otherwise non-interoperable audio gear under a single Wi-Fi-powered system.
"We do believe computers will be in TVs."
Of course, Google did not arrive here with a sudden epiphany. The Chromecast is the product of a series of both past and current failures from the search giant to take over the living room. There was the ill-fated Google TV, which launched in 2010 to lackluster reviews and tied to crappy third-party hardware. It has since been changed to Android TV. Then there's the Nexus Q, a spherical speaker and streaming device that performed so poorly at convincing consumers why it should exist that Google pulled it from its Play Store after four months and gave it away for free to anyone who preordered it.
Android TV remains the company's most robust effort in controlling the entire media experience in the home. But the software is only available on select televisions from Sony, Sharp, and Philips and in the form of gaming-oriented streaming boxes from Nvidia and Razer, as well as Google's own disc-shaped Nexus Player streaming device.
Google says it has a reason to offer high- and low-end devices that, at their core, do the same stuff. "We do believe computers will be in TVs," Rishi Chandra, the vice president of product management for Google's TV efforts, told The Verge today. In that sense, the Android TV is an investment in that future, a product that will be ready for consumers when they upgrade their TV sets down the line, Chandra said. For everyone else, there's Chromecast. "If you want to get thousands of apps, the apps already on your phone, and mirror them to the TV, then you cast it," Chandra added.
Google-made go-betweens for all our dumb objects
With TV and music, it feels as if the Chromecast is tapping into the most obvious of hardware. It's not hard to imagine a Google-made go-between that outfits dumb or outdated home appliances with network connectivity or the ability to perform newer, more useful tasks. Imagine a Chromecast Keurig plugin could start making coffee at the touch of a button from your smartphone as you lie in bed. Anything with a USB slot or HDMI port could become a Chromecast-powered object, in theory. Amazon is already using a similar approach to the smart home with its Alexa voice assistant, which comes baked into the Amazon Echo speaker and Fire Stick and now lets you control home automation products from Smart Things, Belkin, Philips, and Insteon.
Why would Google want to undermine Nest by offering low-cost ways to smarten up our home? Well, for the same reasons Google offers both Chromecast and Android TV: we may not be ready now to live in a world of smart appliances, but for a few bucks here and there you could get close enough in the meantime.
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