Google: FreeviewPlus and HbbTV “not the future of television”.

Paul McIntyre
By Paul McIntyre | 13 August 2014

Google has fired a shot across the bow of the free-to-air TV networks as they prepare to launch their broadband-enabled interactive TV service in coming weeks using European HbbTV technology.

Australian broadcasters have had dozens of their programming and technical people working on the Freeview Plus platform for more than a year. This has caught the attention of international TV markets because it is the first time TV networks anywhere have combined to launch a single HbbTV platform with all their programming schedules and catch-up TV services available together. In other markets like Germany – which in three years has seen HbbTV-enabled sets reach home penetration of about 30 per cent - broadcasters have all produced independent and competing HbbTV services.

Free-to-air tackles data and pay TV

HbbTV allows FTA networks to directly challenge Foxtel and online video networks and publishers by integrating live programming with on-demand capabilities for catch-up TV shows, additional non-broadcast content segments and new niche IPTV delivered TV channels. It will also provide vast amounts of new interactive advertising options and formats aimed at silencing TV critics who want more proof that people are viewing TV ads and a data trail which tells advertisers who has been watching. The technology essentially synchronises the broadcast feed with internet-delivered content using the TV remote control.

But Rishi Chandra, Google’s global director of product development for Chromecast, the top selling electronics device which plugs into the TV set and “casts” content from mobile devices to the big screen, says interactivity and the default remote for TV sets will ultimately be won by smartphones and mobile devices. He says HbbTV is one of a number of developments in which you can do “cool things” on the TV but there were serious limitations. Google is in negotiations with most of the Australian TV networks to have Chromecast capabilities embedded in their apps.

TV remotes clunky for navigation, mobile devices will win out

“We have different points of view, I guess, on HbbTV in terms of the assumptions we’re making,” Chandra says. “People have been talking about interactive TV forever. It’s been defined in the UK with the [TV remote control] red button but it’s just clunky. It doesn’t feel like a natural experience. There were a couple of things we wanted to solve in launching Chromecast; the first was trying to identify the interaction model of television for the future. Google and a variety of other companies have been looking at this for a long time. The challenge of trying to do that on a TV remote with up, down, left, right interaction is that it’s old. Our perspective was to focus on the touch screen which has fundamentally changed the interaction paradigm for a whole host of devices, namely smartphones and now tablets. Instead of trying to reinvent a new one, we said why don’t we take advantage of the one everyone is already becoming accustomed to and living their daily lives around. The assumption we’re making is the smartphone will become pervasive everywhere.”

Chandra says the possibilities of casting content from mobile screens and using those devices as a default remote was that it, among other things, allowed multiple TV viewers to follow their own path while watching the same content on the same big screen

“If there’s five of us watching a sporting program or a drama, the beauty of the second screen is if I want to get information about the score or the actor or whatever it might be and you don’t, I’m impacting your experience if the interactivity is through the TV remote.

“There a lot of cool things that can be done with the traditional TV. So I think we share the same belief, it’s just how we’re going to get there. My core belief is that until you solve that problem [of navigations and interactivity] and if you don’t have the right interaction model to address all these interesting and compelling user cases the industry shares, there are real limitations.

Unlocking new uses for the dumb TV

“The simple ability to move content from the small screen to the big one is really what Chromecast is about. Our user interface is the apps you already use on a day-to-day basis. One click and it just magically shows up on the TV. I’m not building a new interaction model for people to figure out how it’s going to work. It just shows up on that [large] screen. The really powerful thing about this is the idea of everyone having a personal remote control that can unlock usage cases you just don’t have today.”

Chromecast is now the biggest selling electronics device on Amazon in any North American or European market the e-commerce titan operates, although Google will only officially say it has sold “millions and millions” of Chromecast units. It launched in Australia in May through Dick Smith, JB Hi-Fi and the local online Google Play store for $49.95 – JB-HiFi’s website says it’s “a best seller”. Foxtel’s online subscription movie service Presto – aimed at countering the arrival of Netflix and others – is one of the earliest Australian TV operators to build Chromecast compatibility into the Presto app.  

Freeview general manager Liz Ross has responded to Google with this statement:

"Google TV was supposed to be their next best thing and I don't know that it's been that successful.

HbbTV is an evolving technology and the coolest thing is that every version brings more features to the experience.  The ability to connect and drive the experience from a smart phone or tablet is absolutely on its way.

One point of view I have on all of this is that FTA is targeted to the broadest possible audience – almost 100% of homes. The commentary from Chromecast assumes that the average person has a high level of comfort with their type of technology and it's usability.  But, they’re wrong!  This may be attractive to some more tech savvy groups but our research has found that currently only around a quarter of Australians are interested in controlling their TV with another device.

What is the most commonly used handheld device in the lounge room? - the remote control!  It's not been designed for tech savvy users.  Describing it as old is meaningless, cinema is old too."

Liz Ross
General Manager


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