Google’s Chromecast finally makes the battle for the TV worth fighting

Google has erased memories of its two failures in streaming entertainment with a single new launch: a tony, cheap TV dongle that changes your relationship with online video.

This week’s announcement of the Chromecast from Google is another shot in what feels like the slowest war in tech. The big companies have been skirmishing over the largest screen in most houses – the TV – for years, without any scoring a decisive victory. Could this incredibly cheap – $35 ! – little dongle from Google be the one that finally makes that big screen a smart screen?

The odds don’t feel good. Manufacturer-built smart TVs have largely been a disaster, with precious few of them ever connected to the internet. Apple’s effort – the Apple TV – remains a “hobby” for the company – albeit it a rapidly growing one. Microsoft’s aspiration to move the Xbox beyond a games console into a full connected TV devices has stumbled on the path to the XBox One. Google’s own efforts – the Google TV and the Nexus Q – have been disasters.

The Chromecast is something quite new – it isn’t even as advanced as a set-top box. It, essentially, turns your TV into a dumb screen for online video you source on another device. It’s useless without a laptop, phone or tablet to control it. Chose your online content, “cast” it to your TV, and the Chromecast handles it from there.

That’s it. It’s, in effect, an online contact “catcher” – you chuck a stream at it from your phone or laptop, and it puts it on the TV. There’s no need to maintain the connection between the source device and the Chromecast, though. Once it knows about the stream, the Chromecast does all the work on its own. Apple’s nearest equivalent – Airplay – requires the source device to handle the stream and push it to the TV.

This is a reflection of the key conceptual difference between the Apple TV and the Chromecast. The Apple device is very much  set-top box, with its own interface. You can watch and enjoy online content on it without owning a single other Apple device. If you do own other devices, though, the experience is enhanced, with more sophisticated remote apps, and the ability to stream content that you have on your local network. Apple, as always, is about the hardware, and each piece of hardware has its own existence. An Apple TV has a purpose in its own right.

The Chromecast? No so much. This little dongle is very, very deeply uninterested in your local content. It’s all about the experience of streaming content from the internet. This seems to be a very specific, very Google-y choice. Store everything in the cloud, stream it to any device you want. It’s the TV as a very thin client to a world of internet based content. This seems to be as much as philosophical choice as a practical one. Google sees all devices – including those it doesn’t manufacture – as front ends to an internet-based world. Your online existence is in the cloud, and all these screens are just alternative ways of accessing it.

In theory, it would be easier for Apple to adopt the functionality of the Chromecast in the Apple TV than it would be for Google to push the Chromecast in the direction of the Apple TV. Apple’s little back puck can already handle streams from the internet, and signals from mobile devices. It just requires a more formal hand off and it does the job. For the Chromecast to move in Apple’s direction would require a philosophical overhaul of the device. Short of the device being a complete failure – and I can’t see that happening – Google is unlikely to do that.

For a start, this little dongle will sell in huge numbers. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that it already has – Google has had to pull the Netflix offer it launched with because they sold too many, too fast. It’s cheap – very cheap – and will attract experimentation as a result. The real test will not be in how many they sell, but in how many are still in regular use in a year’s time.

We now have two clear bets on the table – a cheap, cheap dongle, that renders the TV subservient to other devices – makes it the second screen, in fact –  or a cheap device that can be an experience in its own right or a support to others. The prices seem to match pretty nicely with the offerings – it remains to be seen which, if either, will grab the public imagination.

Commentators are already calling this for Google. I’d prefer to call it for the consumer – Apple now has good competition for that smart-box HDMI connection on your TV, and is pretty much bound to up its game in the coming months. And Google clearly won’t stay still. The TV is going to get smarter, and that’s good news for all of us.