Google just shot cable's Franz Ferdinand

One could be forgiven for writing off Google TV. After all, there are precedents for web TV failures (Apple TV) and precedents for ostentatious Google windmill-tilting (Wave, Buzz, a dozen others), so I don’t blame the doubters. I’d be one but for the fact that this is too big to be an experiment; it’s a declaration of war. The question is: against whom?

Against Apple? Yes, to some extent. Against set-top boxes? In a way. But primarily, I think it’s against the TV providers. Not in a direct way: as many have noted, Google TV, being a delivery system, relies entirely on others for its content. No, Google is leaning on Comcast and DirecTV and all them indirectly. Like the music industry and Napster, or the mobile phone industry and the iPhone, it’s less a direct assault and more an ultimatum: “Change or die.”

Let’s just address the Apple and set-top box issues first. Is Google sucker-punching Apple? Kind of — with the Froyo announcement, they clearly have Cupertino in their sights. But Apple TV isn’t really a vital target. When was the last time you saw one? Does anyone know what it even does? There are external hard drives with more functionality. Google’s not attacking them, but it may be attacking the iTunes hegemony. Google TV will be pulling its shows from the your cable or from web sources, whichever is more convenient. I guarantee they’re going to make it unbelievably easy — easier than iTunes — to watch, buy, and so on. But iTunes is dug in and isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Google can bide their time there — and flank them.

As for set-top boxes: it’s unclear just how much functionality the Logitech hardware will have, and whether Google TV will allow for mods and apps that provide Popcorn Hour or Boxee-level media management. Boxee has said they see Google TV as complementary rather than competition, but that kind of soft-pedaling is expected on announcement day. Set-top boxes, DVRs, and in-TV web stuff is a real muddle right now; the average TV buyer will almost certainly be bewildered by the options and mystified by the arbitrary limitations. Think of Google TV as being for TVs what Google Maps is for location. There’s a lot of stuff you can do with it, but they don’t do nearly everything themselves: they provide a foundation. I’m thinking (hoping) that Google TV will be similar. There’s more to ask when it comes to home theater PCs: are HTPCs, like Brontosaurus, simply too big to live? I suspect they’ll remain as the hardcore collector’s delivery method of choice. Offline, as hi-def as you want, and under your control. They just won’t be big time.

So it’s a holding action against Apple and an encouraging shoulder-punch to the set-top box community. What’s the main objective? Force the cable and satellite giants’ hands. The providers have fought channels a la carte and other seemingly obvious advances in TV-watching for years now because they’re a threat to the 20-year-old money tree called basic cable. They’ve been dragging their feet for a decade, adding internet functionality piece by piece, but now that Google has thrown their hat into the ring, they have to get serious. They may have inertia, but Google has momentum. But don’t get any romantic notions about this being a David versus Goliath moment. This is just New and Improved Goliath versus Goliath Classic.

Not that Google TV is going to be any great shakes when it actually hits. TVs are already semi-web-connected, and competitors like Yahoo! have plenty of time to craft a credible competitor. Google will just be another brand for a while, but like Android, it will be cheap and plentiful, and always improving. Whenever anyone leaves Yahoo’s system or Vizio’s built-in web widgets, they’ll go to Google, the way feature phone upgraders and WinMo refugees are adopting Android in herds. Like other Google products, it’ll launch incomplete and pick up steam as it goes.

So why is it a threat to cable providers? Simple. Who wants to pay for two pipes? When I went to Comcast’s site to browse for alternative services, the option of getting internet through them was frustratingly obscured behind package deals and cable TV. What if I don’t want TV? Unpossible! Customers are led to believe that there are two distinct pipes running side by side into their house: TV and internet. Sure, that once was the case (and may still be in some areas, admittedly (though not for long)), but it sure as hell isn’t any more, and Comcast is terrified that the subscribing population at large will find out. That’s why they don’t want to give out a la carte: in order to offer options, you must first admit that options exist. If it were up to them, we’d all buy one magical pipe that gives us 100 channels (say for $60) and another pipe that gives us high-speed internet ($50), and never know that in fact, it’s all a big stream of 1s and 0s coming from the big digital content provider in the sky.

Furthermore, the traditional advertising models, pretty much set down in the early days of radio (content, more content after these messages, ads, more content) are all kinds of fun to cling to. I don’t blame them. A million dollars for 30 viewer seconds that will probably be skipped past? Sure, sign here, and we have a nice bridge for sale, too.

DVRs (and eventually Hulu) have done some damage to this concept, but it’s easier for people to think of them as magic VCRs with a tape you never have to rewind. By taking the familiar Google concepts and brands traditionally associated with the internet and putting them on your TV, practically unaltered, Google is rubbing the viewer’s nose in it: It’s all data! Can’t you see?! Data coming through the pipe! Don’t be a fool!

It takes a certain confluence of circumstances to make a new technology or delivery method seem legit to consumers, even though the tech may have been around for years. AOL legitimized “the internet.” iTunes legitimized digital media downloads (Apple is good at this; they’ve legitimized several things). Google is in the process of legitimizing internet-connected TV, even though Yahoo and Samsung and all the others have been kicking it around for a year and a half now. They were doing it at their own rate. Now they’ll have to do it at Google’s rate.

But we already have weather widgets and on-demand and Boxee and TiVo! Yeah, and we already had Nomads and ball mice and candy bar phones — until we had something else. Google’s taking an extant concept and making it simpler and better, or so we hope — it’s kind of what they do. Unfortunately for cable providers, that concept is analogous to net neutrality in your TV — let’s call it “pipe parity,” in which viewers know that it’s all just data coming from some datacenter somewhere and being turned into video by a box in their home. The more prevalent Google TV and nascent pipe parity is (having it in Sony TVs is, no doubt, only the beginning), the more cable and satellite providers will have to provide for it. As the insensibility of their double-dipping becomes more and more evident to viewers, they’ll have to accommodate, though it’ll be a while before any serious changes take place. Satellite, for instance, may not have much of a place in the hierarchy in a couple years outside of getting content to the savage prairies where cable hath spread not its high-bandwidth tentacles.

And of course Google will have to accommodate the providers, as well: after all, it’s NBC or CBS or FOX that creates, licenses, and owns the content every Google TV viewer will want. It goes both ways — but it’s been a long time since it’s gone any way but the networks’. People have been clicking between channels by hitting the up and down buttons for a good 60 years now: it’s practically inborn. TV providers have been capitalizing on it for exactly as long, but now as bandwidth and accessibility catch up to television and movies as they caught up to music seven or eight years ago, they’ll have to switch their game up if they want to stay afloat. Otherwise they’ll end up like the music industry: a criminally obstinate, publicly mocked pariah, with their asses hanging in the wind, suing the customers they chiseled for half a century, and whining all the way to the poorhouse. Christ, good riddance! Let’s hope Comcast doesn’t end up the same way. Actually, on second thought, I’d pay good money to see that.

It’ll take some time, and I’m guessing there are things Google isn’t telling us. Other big players like Netflix, iTunes, TiVo, and so on will have a say in the new order — no sense pretending they’re going to disappear. But I don’t think this is a lark on Google’s part. Like they said, they want a piece of the 4-billion strong TV market, and they’re going to get it one way or another. What remains to be seen is who will ride shotgun — and who will get thrown under the bus.