Google's Eric Schmidt was visiting the other side of the Atlantic this weekend, and during his speaking engagements he waxed lyrical about Google TV. Very lyrical. He pronounced, "Virtually all the television manufacturers on their very high end will eventually adopt Google TV." He also suggested a five-year timetable and then revealed that Google TV will be getting its British debut in about six months.
Considering that since its 2010 debut in the U.S. Google TV hasn't taken off at all, and one of its biggest launch manufacturing partners, Logitech, scrapped its inventory due to poor sales, it's a strange move.
What Google is taking to the U.K.—the region generally credited with invention of the first practical TV and the first video recording—is a product that isn't selling, is very complex, and doesn't necessarily marry up with the almost unique broadcasting environment, there.
Broadcasting in Britain has, for nearly all the lifetime of TV itself, been dominated by the state-approved BBC. If you own a TV in Britain you have to pay a yearly license, and then terrestrially broadcasted channels from the BBC and other networks are free to view. The license fee funds the BBC exclusively, with its status as a public service broadcaster managed by the government both directly and indirectly. This frees up the BBC from the need to generate income via advertising, and enables it to deliver highly regarded TV shows and carry out expensive R&D and experiments with new technology.
The BBC has had interactive TV in operation for 10 years, and its latest moves into online digital rebroadcasting of content, for free, can be considered as a leading tech example for the rest of the world. Digital terrestrial TV is also fairly ubiquitous in the U.K., bringing higher quality and more interactivity. There are around 50 "Freeview" channels available to anyone who hooks up a digital TV system.
Meanwhile, satellite TV is largely monopolized by Sky, the brand name for British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB), formed in 1990 from a merger of the two earlier competing Sky Television and British Satellite Broadcasting companies. It's the largest pay-TV provider in the U.K. with over 10 million subscribers (about one in six people), and a controlling stake is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation (stirring up recent scandals). BSkyB subscribers have access to over 300 TV channels, and as part of its Sky+ systems since 2001 users have been able to both record live TV and pause it, TiVo-style. Sky also supports the interactive TV functions of the "red button" first championed by the BBC, as well as video on demand.
Like the BBC's iPlayer, Sky also offers online catchup and TV content downloading to its subscribers. Following the lead of these two players, many of the other free (and paid) networks in the U.K. have similar services and content can be played back on a variety of platforms from smartphones to PlayStations to laptops.
So, stumbling into this market comes Google TV. It offers...well, a set-top box solution (or integrated Net TV hardware) that connects a TV up to the Internet. It will let British TV viewers do much of the functions that they can already do via their well-established systems. There are widgets, for sure, and being able to surf the Net to check up on details of a show will appeal to some—as will the ability to do some social networking. But weather widgets? Let's just remember how much the Brits love their traditional weather forecasters:
Google TV in the U.K. will also incorporate BBC iPlayer tech, and Sky Player—but it's not certain if it'll support other channels' online replay services, like the popular Channel 4's 4OD system. The set-top boxes or IPTVs incorporating Google tech will have to compete with other hardware, long in use for watching Freeview, and existing cable and satellite boxes from Sky and Virgin (the leading cable operator).
While BBC iPlayer does have a big future as an on-TV net replay system, it's already wildly popular on computers and mobile devices...so much so the BBC has just rolled out an international version that plays via iPads.
If Google can sign up with Virgin, it may get a content provider that could boost its sales in a way that hasn't really happened in the U.S. But given the tenaciousness of Rupert Murdoch, it's hard to picture Sky signing up with Google—giving away some of its precious control.
Finally, there's the British character to think on (disclosure: I'm a Brit). Faced with the typical Google TV remote control when touring an electronics store, there's likely to be a lot of commentary along the lines of "Blimey! That looks like the cockpit of Concorde!" and "Too complicated, I just want to watch TV."
In recent years the British public has been bombarded with new TV technology, from the aforementioned Freeview digital TV set-top boxes to Sky's recording boxes and Virgin's cable and IPTV systems—advances that have paralleled the arrival of high definition television. For Google to push itself as yet another new service on top of and partly replicating some of the existing offerings promises to be a very tricky sell indeed.
Rich Leigh, expert on "good and bad PR" from 10Yetis agency agrees: He's inclined to think that for Google to promote its TV system in the U.K. will be a "struggle." Leigh notes that TiVo has recently launched in the U.K. too with Virgin, and "yet another TV service may just be ignored as consumers struggle to keep up with new technology. The PR and marketing team have a huge job on their hands to convince consumers and potential developers that it's worth bothering with."
What Google may be hoping is that it can sign content partnerships beyond the BBC, leverage YouTube content, and hone its UI and other tech with the already tech-savvy British TV viewers' help. By boosting its ease of use, it may be able to sell better across the rest of the world. But it's a long shot, even given Schmidt's confidence.
[Image: Flickr user samchurchill]