Google Moves to TVs With Help From Intel and Sony

Published: May 20, 2010

At Google’s annual I/O conference here on Thursday, the search giant announced that it is leading a group of companies, including Sony and Intel, in an effort called Google TV.

Google’s Android software, originally developed for smartphones, will power the new service, set to run on a range of high-definition TVs and devices that connect to TVs, which will go on sale later this year.

Google said its Google TV service would combine traditional television programming with Internet video, and would allow people to easily search for programs without scrolling through unwieldy onscreen TV directories.

The effort is likely to face formidable challenges. Google must convince TV manufacturers other than Sony to use its software. And consumers have demonstrated little interest, so far, in connecting to the Web via their TVs.

What they have shown, though, is price sensitivity, and the high-powered Intel chips running these new TV services are likely to add perhaps as much as $100 to televisions optimized for the Internet, according to analysts, although the companies did not discuss prices.

Howard Stringer, chief executive of Sony, the ailing Japanese electronics giant and the third-largest maker of flat panel televisions in the United States market, appeared on Google’s stage to say Sony would build Google’s software into a line of its high-definition televisions that connect to the Internet, as well as one of its Blu-ray players. He was joined by the chief executives of Best Buy, Adobe, Intel, Dish Networks and Logitech in supporting the new software.

Intel will provide its Atom processors for the devices. It has spent billions developing those chips over the last few years in a high-stakes push to crack the market for consumer electronics.

Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, noted that people had been talking about bringing the Web to the TV for two decades. “It’s much harder to marry a 50-year-old technology and a brand-new technology than those of us from the brand-new technology thought,” he said.

Devices running Google TV will also be able to run applications written for Android phones, and will feature Google’s Chrome Web browser, which would allow consumers to surf the Web from their television sets.

Logitech, a maker of peripheral devices for computers like keyboards, mice and webcams, will manufacture a set-top box running Google TV that will allow people to get it without having to buy a new television. It will also work on new kinds of remote controls and peripherals to allow people to surf the Web from their couches.

Many companies, of course, have already tried to bridge the gap between the television and the Web. TiVo, Boxee, Roku and Vudu, now a division of Wal-Mart, all make devices that offer a variety of Internet video on the TV. All have struggled to get mainstream consumers on board.

Roku has sold more than 500,000 set-top boxes, but its sales took off only when the price of those devices sank below $100, said Anthony Wood, the company’s chief executive. Noting the premium prices that devices running Google TV would probably charge, Mr. Wood said, “I don’t think it’s a threat as it is today, but certainly over time Google is going to get market share.”

TV manufacturers already sell so-called connected televisions with limited Internet content. Such televisions are likely to make up a quarter of all TVs sold this year, according to analysts. But many consumers do not even know they are buying that feature, and they usually make their shopping decisions based on the size and appearance of the set.

One advantage Google believes it has in courting TV manufacturers is the success of its Android platform for mobile phones — and the fact that TV makers like LG and Samsung already sell phones running Android. On Thursday, Google said that 100,000 new Android phones are activated every day, up from 60,000 in April — second in the industry only to phones from Research In Motion.

Google executives trumpeted the notion that Google seems to have already surpassed its rival Apple in this respect, although Apple still has a far larger base of devices running theiPhone operating system. It recently reported that it had shipped 85 million iPhones andiPod Touches, and more than a million iPad tablets.

Apple could double down on the TV business soon as well. It currently sells an Apple TV set-top box, which it deems an experiment, and most analysts view as a lackluster product. But analysts have long said that it now makes sense for Apple to begin selling its own flat-panel televisions that link to its iTunes content offerings.

“Google TV is more than anything finally going to create some energy over at Apple to make a television, or at least a version of the iPad that docks with a TV,” said James McQuivey, an analyst at Forrester Research.

In an interview, Vic Gundotra, vice president of engineering at Google, used the momentum of Android, a free open-source platform with few rules governing its use, to draw a sharp distinction with the control exerted by Apple over the iPhone.

“If you believe that the only way to get a good smartphone is to bet on one man, one device, one carrier, and one choice, that is a different model than we believe in,” Mr. Gundotra said. “We believe innovation doesn’t come from one man, it comes from all of us.”

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