Monday, July 29, 2013

Chromecast: Google's Trojan Horse

I received my Chromecast this past Saturday and got hooked to it immediately. While others got busy reviewing the device and breaking down the good and the bad, I have been asking myself some very basic questions which I couldn't seem to answer intelligently:
  1. Why isn't Google marketing the hell out of this product? If it is such a "game changer".
  2. Why did they underplay this device at the launch? And let it be eclipsed by the new Nexus 7 tablet? Not to say that the new Nexus 7 isn't a marvel in itself.
  3. Why even now Chromecast is a tiny UI card on Play Store after scrolling down a few pages while the Nexus 7 sits at the top of the device listings?
  4. Why is Google letting big tech sites draw direct comparisons between the chromecast and other streaming devices out there, when it's nothing like them? Why is there even a discussion of it being an "Apple TV killer"?
I believe there's a lot more going on here than meets the eye. After doing a lot of reading over the weekend, I realized Google surely did not launch "another streaming option", they did not have to wait this long to do so. Especially, after their partially failed attempt at Google TV and the completely nixed Nexus Q. They can't use Chromecast to track usage (it can't tell exactly what messages are being delivered, it's just a conduit) and they have already announced there is no intention to turn this into an ad platform. So, what did they launch here and why are they trying to underplay it? I believe this device is really just a key, a sort of a 'master key' which opens a lot of doors and solves a lot of problems plaguing Google since a long time (anyone remember the Chromekey rumors back in June? wonder why they changed the name to Chromecast?)

I am not going to go into the technical details here, there are a lot of very well qualified folks who have done that at length. What I am attempting to highlight here is Google's deceptively powerful simplicity, just as with so many other big things they do. I have always believed Google's seeped in its own philosophy that "everything will be in the cloud one day". And so it happens that Chromecast does not mirror the actual content from your phone or tablet, it pulls it directly from the cloud! +Rishi Chandra, Director of Product Management for Chromecast reiterated this in his interview with Verge. He also mentions that they don't believe there's one device that's going to rule them all and then goes on to say Google is "making a bet, and it's a pretty aggressive bet." So, if the device itself is just a "browser content shell" which simply supports HTML5 video, audio and flash and is a "plug and play" solution for any TV, what is the big deal?

Well, Google is betting that in the near future every TV and set top box would be running the Android operating system. A recent report revealed that the Chromecast device is really running Android, and not a stripped down version of Chrome OS as initially claimed by Google. Android is the platform that Google TV is based on! Is it really a surprise then that Google's SVP of Chrome and Chrome OS, +Sundar Pichai was also appointed head of Android not four months ago and he was the one to launch this device from his stable.

Google's also trying to kill a second bird with this stone. They are trying to decisively answer, once and for all, the long standing questions around Google's hardware and software fragmentation. They have attacked the classic issue of cross-platform integration by making a device which is truly cross-platform in itself  - Chromecast works across Android, iOS, Mac OS, Chrome OS and Windows.

The real reason why Google's initial attempts at entering the living room failed were not because they made bad products, it was because they could not procure enough content. Google knows it needs to get a foothold in the TV space now or it will be too late. And this is Google's biggest and smartest move yet in this space. This tiny $35 HDMI dongle is Google's Trojan Horse. There is only one reason for it's existence: get inside as many households and attach to as many TV sets as quickly as possible. The purpose of the device is not to kill the Apple TV nor to replace the HDMI cord that connects your laptop to your TV. It's simply to drive widespread adoption of Google's ubiquitous solution to everything - Android. Google is trying really hard not to alarm anyone right now. It is indeed chuckling at the direct comparisons being drawn between it's tiny dongle and the Apple TV and Roku because that is exactly what it had hoped for! People are being fooled into thinking that the Chromecast is only capable of supporting Netflix, Youtube and Google Play. Out of the box, yes. But one look at the Google Cast SDK (software development kit) which has already been released to the developer community and there's no hiding the truth - it's capable of much more than Google would have us believe.

Google is waiting for this device to spread on its own, which by the looks of it is already happening six days into the launch. The device sold out within a day of the launch and the three months free Netflix promotion had to be ended within hours due to the overwhelming demand for the device itself. There is no better marketing than a device that sells out on the first day. People bought multiple Chromecasts because its cheap and its portable. They are carrying it abroad to their home countries, they are gifting it to their relatives and friends, they are buying it for their parents' homes and for their kids' studios, they want one they can carry on their trips so they can stream wherever they are. Chromecast is marketing itself, Google didn't need to!

Their misdirection with Chromecast seems to be working well so far. All they need to do now is wait until their 'messenger' is sitting comfortably behind the TV in every household. Once the critical mass is reached, Google's going to unleash the full potential of Chromecast. Remember ChromeRPC protocol that Google demoed at the IO conference earlier this year? Imagine the ability to 'cast' the game you were playing on your phone onto the TV and then start using the phone simply as a controller, all in seconds! And it won't be the Chromecast device itself, it would be the underlying platform - Android - that people will come to know and appreciate like they have never before.

That's when Google would have demonstrated - beyond a reasonable doubt - to all the content companies and app developers that Chromecast, and hence, Android is their best friend! It won't be long before companies like Sony, Samsung and LG realize it's much easier and more efficient to include the Google Cast SDK into their "smart" TV solutions rather than build their own. Google has already accomplished a brilliant inversion of the streaming TV market with this dongle device. It's when Google establishes the standard, that it suddenly has the negotiating power it has been lacking since so long to strike the licensing deals with media companies. At the end, that's what they are going after really - the Internet-streamed television service. And what do they need to control to make that happen? Internet and TV, simple right? Ever heard of Project Loon, the balloon-based network that would beam the Internet down like sunshine, making it available to anyone, anywhere? And Google Fiber, its affordable and super fast 1-gigabit-per-second Internet service purported to reach 8 million homes by 2022? The dots start to connect pretty fast...and in this multi-pronged attack lies Google's pure genius. It's solving the classic chicken and egg problem with a simple device. And it is because of this genius that I maintain Google is the 'Company of the Future'.

So, is Chromecast indeed a path breaking, game changing device? You tell me! :)