Late last week, Google unveiled Chromecast, attempt number three in their quest to conquer the living room after the wide-right foul ball that was GoogleTV and the wild swing-and-a-miss-and-thrown-bat that was the ill-fated Nexus Q. At just $35, Chromecast is certainly priced compellingly and it’s hard to find fault with its barely-there footprint. So, is this the winner that Google has been looking for?
I’m not so sure.
The Competitive Landscape
Realistically speaking, Chromecast is competing with Apple TV and Roku for space in your living room. Handily, Dan Rayburn of Frost and Sullivan recently published some statistics surrounding the streaming market, which provide a great metric for comparison:
Our report details sales numbers showing that Apple owned 56% of the streaming devices market in 2012, with Roku coming in second at 21% of the market.
Tivo is next with just 6.5% of the market and then “others” — comprised of a rag-tag assortment of several devices you’ve never heard of — split the remaining 15.9 percent.
Rayburn also fortuitously noted that “Google is conspicuous by its absence in this segment.”
That brings us to last week’s announcement.
Google needs to grab a sizable portion of the market in order to overtake either Apple or Roku in the streaming market and with Chromecast, it appears that they’re touting three key selling points in an effort to get there:
Anyone who has a laptop or a desktop (Mac, PC, or Chromebook) can Chromecast. Anyone with an Android device can Chromecast. Google promises that at some point in the near future, anyone with an iOS device will be able to Chromecast.
At first blush, this is indeed a compelling argument against an investment in Apple TV because Apple infamously curates a walled garden: If you want to stream from a smartphone, tablet, or computer to an Apple TV, you’re going to have to own a smartphone, tablet, or computer with an Apple logo on it.
Dig a little deeper, though, and the advantages aren’t quite so clear cut: Chromecast offers a wider swath of device compatibility, yes, but without one of those compatible devices, your $35 buys little more than a dust cover for a spare HDMI port. This means that Blackberry customers need not apply. Windows Phone? Nope. I’m not even sure if the Kindle Fire gets to play ball, given the forked-up state of Android on Amazon’s platform.
What about one-device households in which that one device isn’t always in the house?
An Apple TV works as a stand-alone device: Plug it in, run an HDMI cable to your TV, and everything you need to stream Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus, HBO GO, amongst others — not to mention the ability to rent or buy TV shows and movies — is right there on the device. If you have a high-speed internet connection, you can use the hell out of an Apple TV right out of the box. As a bonus, if you happen to have an iPhone or an iPad, an Apple TV provides far more streaming utility than Chromecast, even from an Android device.
There’s no two ways around it: $35 is an intriguing price for almost anything that requires a power plug, let alone a somewhat functional media streamer, and there’s no doubt that one “streaming device” at $99 is a tough sell against another “streaming device” at $35.
All that is to say: The Chromecast is priced to sell if you’re a not particularly observant comparison shopper who thinks all “streaming devices” are alike. Having read some of the early reviews, though, it seems to me that Chromecast is $35 because it provides at least $64 less value than an Apple TV.
It’s got Netflix, true, but what doesn’t these days?
There are no less than four devices currently plugged into my TV that offer access to Netflix, and a couple of them also stream YouTube videos. Netflix-capable devices are the new paper clip: You’ve probably got a couple of them laying around.
Ultimately, there’s little if anything a Chromecast can do that an Apple TV cannot do, and a lot of empty space and negotiating for content that Google still needs to do to in order to increase the value gap beyond a knee-jerk impulse buy for geeks.
Yes, $35 is a great price for a gadget if that gadget provides substantially more than $35 worth of value — but I’m not sure Chromecast gets there.
Ease of Use
Chromecast is quite a bit smaller than an already pretty small Apple TV, yes, but is it easier to use or set up? My post-announcement impression was that the Chromecast dongle was a self-powered device. This can be true, except when it’s not: Some newer televisions have HDMI ports that will provide power, but not all. (And not mine.) Some newer televisions have USB ports that will provide power via the included cable, but not all. (And not mine.) For everyone else, you’re left with pluggingin via a standard wall socket. Not a deal breaker, but not exactly the plug-and-play experience that Google touted, either.
The fact is, some of the neatest features of the $35 Chromecast call for the most current television models. For everyone else there’s the small print.
And, of course, after you’ve got the device plugged-in and powered-up, you’re directed to visit a website — necessitating the use of a companion device — just so that you can connect Chromecast to a WiFi network. Even if you assume that all of this is indeed super easy, there’s nothing about the process that is any easier than setting up an Apple TV which, again, is not a deal breaker but is contrary to Google’s hyperbole.
Perhaps Google will put out an infomercial-style pitch in which a clueless and unsuspecting Apple TV owner looks helplessly at an HDMI cable or struggles mightily with Apple’s remote while engaged in a constant struggle to reach the on-screen settings menu. But wait! Struggle no more as you effortlessly insert the pocket-sized Chromecast dongle and your TV auto-switches input and streams all your content like magic! Order in the next hour and you’ll get three months of Netflix — a $24 value — FREE! (PROBABLY!)
So, What Then?
Not long after it was announced, Gizmodo’s Brian Barrett announced that “you’d be crazy not to buy Google Chromecast.” Then, after the free-Netflix deal went extinct (which, let’s be honest, wasn’t all that long after Google announced Chromecast), Gizmodo updated that headline with the caveat of a “super sad update” and an excitement downgrade from “no-brainer” to “pretty good deal.”
So, who’s it for, then? If you own an iOS device, I’d say you’d be crazy to buy a $35 Chromecast instead of a $99 Apple TV.
If you own an Android device I’d say you have a compelling reason to read the reviews and find out if the value is there for what you’d use it for. Given Google’s history with television and content deals, though, I’d strongly encourage a few months of patience.
Here are some choice cuts:
Even within the apps that have already been tweaked for Chromecast compatibility, there are some day one bugs. Sometimes videos don’t play the first time you ask them to, instead dropping you into a never-ending loading screen. Other times, the video’s audio will start playing on top of a black screen. These bugs aren’t painfully common, but they’re not rare, either. - TechCrunch
There were some glitches with the other two apps as well. Google Play Movies froze while loading up one video, but we were able to remedy the issue by closing the app and trying again. The Netflix app also quit registering touch input during playback on several occasions when we allowed our device to enter standby mode. - Engadget
I tested free Hulu content, HBO Go, NBC, CBS, and Fox, all of which worked. The bad news is that limitations are obvious right away. Image quality ranges from mediocre to poor, mostly because Chrome is converting the video on the fly from your PC and sending it to the Chromecast. You’re also going to run into occasional (and sometimes frequent) dropouts — sometimes just audio, but sometimes the video pauses, too. And the feature itself isn’t entirely stable, so expect the extension to crash sometimes with Google throwing a quirky “brain freeze” message up on your TV. - CNET
Google gobbled-up a majority of the smartphone market because their partners — Samsung, primarily — blanketed the low-end with cheap, underpowered devices that millions of people use like feature phones.
They seem to be making a similar, albeit in-house, grab for the streaming-media market with Chromecast, but questions remain: Is the low-end juggernaut of the sizeable Android market looking to buy a media-streaming device (at any price) and — if not — is the high-end of the Android market formidable enough to overtake Apple for that top spot, or even move past Roku to emerge as a strong number two?
Perhaps, but that won’t make this first generation Chromecast any better as an investment.
Not long ago, Apple was paying Google a license fee to use Google’s mapping data for its iOS mapping solution, even as Google withheld turn-by-turn navigation as a competitive advantage for Android.
If rumors hold true (UPDATE: They’re true) Apple’s decision to cut Google off and release it’s own maps app (which isn’t really bad at all, in my experience) will result in Google releasing a native iOS version of Google Maps with turn-by-turn navigation — and Apple won’t have to pay a license fee for the data.
So, 1) those who usually can’t shut up about competition being great for consumers should stop bitching about Apple’s decision, as iOS users will soon have more choices than ever before and 2) in hindsight, at least, this seems to have been a pretty smart move by Apple.
Two months ago, Forbes declared Google the winner in the maps war and predicted Apple would crawl back to Google to re-license the mapping data. Instead, Google rushed to prep a native App (in fairness, they probably had to buy a lot of buckets for all the ad revenue they’re about to rake in) and Apple gets its own solution as well as a new-and-improved solution from Google — free of charge — and consumers get more choice.
Win, win, win.
It’s being reported that over 600,000 Macs are now infected by the Flashback trojan, a “drive by” piece of Malware that doesn’t need administrator privileges or even a password prompt to successfully latch on.
The PC pundits couldn’t be more excited. Finally, they say, the inevitable has happened and smug Mac users are finding out what it’s like to be a PC user.
"It was only a matter of time."
Apple today announced iCloud, iOS 5, and Mac OS X Lion. All expected. I followed along on Engadget — Macworld’s live feed was too buggy with its “live” updates — and my initial thought was: “Apple is knocking this out of the park.”
I still feel as though this is a major move forward for Apple, but in seeing the inevitable “what does this mean for Dropbox, or Rdio, or Instapaper” posts trickle down through my Twitter feed, I’m left with a lot of questions, and few answers.
Put another way: Is it a bigger problem that RIM’s App World has only 9,000 apps, or, that the typical quality and polish of their apps is beneath that of the apps in Apple’s App Store? A simple app count is nice and comfortable because it’s not subjective (like my statement in the previous sentence about quality and polish), but it’s potentially misleading.
I’m not sure I fully agree. At this stage, we’re talking about the difference between hundreds of thousands and not even tens of thousands. I think if you’re only looking at Android and the iPhone, Gruber is correct: Numbers aren’t particularly useful, and it becomes important to talk about which developers are making popular and quality apps for which platform.
The general consensus on that front is that the iPhone OS wins out, for now, whether it’s pitted against Android or Blackberry.
On the other hand, if someone is reading Walt Mossberg because they’re making a platform decision, and they see that Blackberry is limited to 9,000 apps when the next closest competitor is climbing quickly at around 80,000 apps and the top competitor is fast approaching 250,000 apps—there’s not much more you need to know, is there?
I would note that when discussing apps, you’re really talking about average consumers and the lifestyle crowd: Those who will use their smartphone for a little bit of everything. I’m not arguing enterprise, here.
I think any thoughtful person would conclude that developers are going to focus on platforms and app markets with strong and fast growth potential.
With that said, the one thing I would add to a discussion of numbers is growth over time: It’s embarrassing enough that RIM is so ridiculously far behind, it’s far worse when both Apple and Google started from behind. Given RIM’s superstar status, this is akin to Usain Bolt losing the 200 m after being allowed a generous head start. Any way you slice it, the iPhone app store is approaching 250,000 apps after only a couple years and RIM had many more than that to eke out 9000. How can that be anything but horrible news for RIM?
Ultimately, I don’t think this is much like the Windows/Mac OS fight, another easy fallback for a lot of people: The mobile app arena involves three strong competitors, with a fourth (Windows Phone 7) waiting to jump out of the gate. (Not to mention Palm. Heheh.) I don’t think RIM has the luxury that Apple had when it was the only real contender to Windows. (Not to mention Linux. Heheh.)
The mobile market, to me, is far more exciting than the Windows vs. Mac OS debate, because there’s far more viable competition, and the battle is far from decided in any one company’s favor. We may never see a clear victor.
With that said, I doubt Blackberry will ever compete on apps
and the raw numbers are enough to come to that conclusion. What do I care if RIM has 9000 high quality apps if they’re never going to have many more than that? Mobile’s moving too fast to hitch a ride on a company that is spinning its wheels.
Google I/O 2010 is winding down and if there’s anyone out there who is still upset or confused as to why Apple is dedicating virtually every aspect of its upcoming World Wide Developers Conference to the iPhone OS, the announcements of the past few days should shed a lot of light on the subject: Google is ready to fight, bare knuckle style.
In summing up the situation, former Android engineer Cédric Beust has this to say:
I think Apple got arrogant just a tad too early. They were doing great, selling iPhones by the millions despite AT&T and they decided that they had already won, so they could become complacent. They kicked out Adobe, started locking down their product even more strongly than before, stopped innovating on the music front (where is http://itunes.com? Why do I still need an ugly client for the slightest synchronization task?), fell behind both in hardware and software, and Android eagerly filled the void.
While I think it’s completely valid to point a wagging finger at Apple and throw out the word arrogant, I also think it’s a bit rich to say (with a straight face) that Apple—which has undeniably been living the high life for a couple years now—got arrogant “a tad too early” given the smug emanating from this week’s Google I/O, supported only by a single month’s worth of sales data and an unreleased software update.
Beust concludes that Apple must now fight tooth and nail to remain in “third or maybe even fourth” place as a smart phone developer. Leaving aside the question of who Beust would place in second or maybe even third place if Apple isn’t occupying that slot…well, no…who is it that’s in second or third place, Cédric?
Further, when’s the last time a major corporation dedicated so much time and effort to downplaying (and gleefully ridiculing) the number three or number four player in a crowded market? Could this chuckling and back-patting be nervous bravado? Indeed, could it be a tad…too early?
Time will tell.
At any rate, evangelism of this sort coming from a former team player isn’t all that surprising: Everyone talks a big game about the home team. What is a bit surprising is that he’s basing the self-congratulatory tone of his post on a piece by Dan Lyons, aka “The Increasingly Bitter and Unfunny Fake Steve Jobs” who is—gasp!—switching to Android.
I’m not sure what the turning point was, but at some point, Fake Steve Jobs ceased to be a funny parody of Steve Jobs—at once deeply critical and reverential, always on the mark—only to become about Dan Lyons’s deep hatred for everything Apple and Steve Jobs. (Not to mention his bizarre and seemingly one-sided feud with John Gruber which is just…creepy.)
Lyons makes (amongst others) the following justification for his switch:
Froyo also will let you buy songs over the air and download them directly to your phone. It will also stream songs from your music library to your phone. I don’t really use my phone as a music player that much, but still, it’s impressive that Google has this feature and Apple still doesn’t.
What’s “impressive” is the fact that Dan Lyons is paid (what I assume to be) a really good salary to pump out tech content for a major news outlet, and that he (anonymously) built up a reputation for his ability to eerily and accurately channel Steve Jobs when it came to satirizing Apple’s product strategies, but that he doesn’t know enough about the currently shipping iPhone OS to accurately describe its feature-set.
I’m shocked that he typed out the first sentence regarding “over the air” purchases. He may as well have mentioned Apple’s historic distaste for the multi-button mouse, because I can’t fathom how even the most passive fan of technology would get that basic fact wrong this far into the game. I can barely remember a time when it wasn’t possible to purchase content over-the-air on an iPhone. (Pre-3G, perhaps?)
The follow-up claim regarding over-the-air streaming is even more interesting:
Lyons claims that Froyo (an as-of-yet-unreleased update of the Andriod OS) will ship with a feature that simply isn’t supported at all on the currently shipping iPhone OS.
True, in a way, but there’s quite a bit more to that story:
Simplify Media had been offering a 3rd-party solution to iPhone and iPod touch users which handily facilitated over-the-air streaming of audio content from an iTunes library—so long as the songs weren’t encumbered by Apple’s Fairplay DRM—to any iDevice. You could even share your library with a friend. The Simplify app was approved by Apple’s notoriously picky approval goons, and even survived the process through several updates. (The latest version in my app library is 1.2.8.)
Had been, because as of a few months ago, Google bought Simplify Media, and the app has since been removed from the iTunes App store, with nary more than a (then unexplained) blog post announcing that the company would be moving in a new direction: “We will be announcing future plans at a later date, but we will continue to operate the service for at least the next 3 months.” (Translation: Existing iPhone customers are SOL in 3 months.)
So, it’s either ignorance or disingenuousness that leads Lyons to claim that Google is first to market with a feature that they literally bought away from the competition.
Don’t be evil, indeed.
(There’s no reason to believe that another 3rd party can’t step up to the plate, that Apple would prevent them from doing so if and when it happens, or that Apple won’t simply integrate streaming functionality into the iPhone OS. Things would get really interesting if Apple were to purchase a streaming music service of their own? Oh, wait.)
Lyons is also concerned about Apple’s draconian stance on pornography.
In short: It’s true, Apple is pretty overtly against allowing even the softest-core content through its app store approval process, and has even retroactively removed—censored, if that’s the word you want to hear—certain content in order to live up to that standard.
On the other hand, Apple is doing absolutely nothing to prevent the inevitable, which is the spread of websites which are bending over backward to support the iPad (along with the iPhone/iPod Touch) in an effort to peddle hardcore pornography to anyone who wants to view it. The following screenshot was taken while a video was playing, viewed on an iPad, from YouPorn.com:
So, the internet, which is beyond Apple’s control, is unregulated, just as it is on any other device. The app store, which is under Apple’s control, is held to a certain standard. An imperfectly administered standard, admittedly, but there you have it:
Anyone with an interest in pornography (I had to view that video, in the interest of quality journalism) will have no trouble finding just about anything they want, using an iPad. Have at it, Dan Lyons.
But that’s not all! According to Lyons, “…yes, while Apple might one day match what Google just introduced the point is this: Apple now is chasing Google.”
Hasn’t that allegedly been “the point” ever since the first iPod was introduced? Hasn’t Apple, according to pundits just like Lyons, and competitors just like Google, been chasing “some feature” or another, all the while selling a ridiculous amount of hardware and raking in a ridiculous amount of money?
If the joke is on Apple, this better be one hell of a punchline. Some of us are getting sick of waiting.