Google TV relaunches with Android Market (video)

Google (s GOOG) is finally rolling out its long-awaited update to the Google TV platform this weekend, which comes with a completely revamped UI as well as access to the Android Market. The update will be rolled out to Sony devices first and reach Logitech Revue set-top boxes soon after. On both, consumers can expect access to up to 1,800 apps at launch.

Google TV VP of Product Mario Queiroz and Google TV Product Lead Rishi Chandra sat down with me the other day to talk strategy as well as give me a tour of the new platform. Check out a first video of Google TV below, or skip down to read about the major updates and many more things to come.


Lessons learned

Saying that Google TV hasn’t been a success story is being very polite. The platform was mostly met with bad reviews when it first came out a year ago, and sales were so lackluster that hardware partner Logitech lost millions of dollars as well as its CEO, and eventually decided to drop the price of its Revue set-top box from $249 to $99.

That’s been a humbling experience for the Google TV team, and both Queiroz and Chandra went out of their way to point out that they got the message. “We learned a lot from V1,” Queiroz told me. He said the team completely understood that the first version was too complex, and too much focused on the things that Google knows best, like search.

Queiroz described this update as the first step towards making Google TV more user-friendly – with a big emphasis on first step. “This is not the final version,” he promised, adding that there will be “one or two major OS updates a year” going forward.

Features added

That being said, the new version offers a lot of improvements. Here are some of the most notable new features:

  • Access to the Android Market is easily the biggest step for Google TV. Queiroz told me that the total number of compatible apps available will be around 1600 to 1800 at launch, but that will include many mobile apps that may just have been tweaked a little to also run on the TV screen. There will be 30 to 50 featured apps optimized for Google TV, including the following: QVC for Google TV, AOL HD, Fox News, Wall Street Journal Live, Pandora, Clicker and Twitter. (Check out the entire list of featured apps here.)
  • The UI was simplified as well and now works better as an overlay over TV programming, which should make the integration with pay TV services easier — more on that below.
  • Google TV now has a simplified programming guide in the form of a TV and movies app that offers access to live TV listings as well as online sources for content. There’s an option to get personalized recommendations based on past ratings and viewing behaviour, but it’s opt-in.
  • Users will be able to install non-market apps, which should make a lot of developers and homebrew hackers very, very happy.
  • YouTube is playing a much bigger role in this version of Google TV. The first iteration included a somewhat awkward YouTube integration that threw users back onto the video sharing website, but YouTube became nonetheless the most popular app on Google TV. Google TV 2.0 includes a proper YouTube for TV interface, and videos start in full-screen mode right away.

What does the future have in store?

The new version of Google TV isn’t really all that groundbreaking; rather, it’s what Google TV should have offered all along. And that seems to be exactly what Google was aiming for with this release — not a big flash, but finally a solid base that can be continuously improved both through Google’s apps as well as applications from third-party developers.

Queiroz and Chandra didn’t share many details about future releases, but they said that social will play a significant role for Google TV in the future — which of course can only mean that Google+ will inevitably find its way to Google TV sooner or later.

Part of that continuous push will also be the release of new devices. Both Samsung and Vizio have already announced their own Google TV devices, and the company is now saying that it will have more partners to announce in 2012. Those devices will be cheaper too, now that Intel has ceeded the smart TV game to ARM.

Queiroz also hinted at two other big opportunities for Google TV: The platform will eventually be available outside the U.S., and he admitted that the television market works very differently once you leave this country. To me, that sounded like a hint that Google may be more open to embracing free over-the-air content in Europe and other places where pay TV doesn’t play as big of a role as in the U.S. He also said that even in the U.S., there would be other distribution models. Given that Google just acquired Motorola Mobility, one can expect that Google is already looking at bringing Google TV to cable TV set-top boxes.

Cable boxes, Google+ integration, additional hardware partnerships: Google is definitely looking at Google TV as a long-term bet. That’s why Queiroz and Chandra didn’t even pretend that the new version will magically turn everything around and transform Google TV into an overnight success story. But it will give them a more solid basis to work on, and possibly evolve into something that could play a major role in years to come. Said Queiroz: “We very much believe that the ecosystem will take off.”