Over the last decade, Google has extended its reach from desktop computers to smartphones and tablets. Yet despite years of trying with complex products like Google TV, it has not been able to breach the citadel of television.
So on Wednesday, Google introduced Chromecast, a product looking at the problem another way. The relatively low-tech, $35 device is an internet-connected thumb drive that plugs into a high-definition TV to stream from the cloud and control it with a smartphone, tablet or computer.
Chromecast is basically Google's version of the current Apple TV and hinges on appropriating the latter device's beloved feature, Airplay, that lets someone beam what they're viewing on their iPhone, iPad or computer to their TV. Google has iterated on Apple's feature by opening it up beyond devices operating on Apple software to include those running Android, Windows and Google's browser-based Chrome OS.
That means someone can pull up a video from YouTube or Netflix (the only video services initially enabled) on an iPad or an Android phone and toss it to the TV for everyone in the room to watch. It's a relatively minor improvement, but combined with Chromecast's relatively inexpensive price point -- $35 compared to Apple TV's $99 -- the device could hold big implications for the rise of online video and its merger with TV. If it's easier to watch online video on people's preferred screen, they'll do it more.
Chromecast has no content advantages over any other set top on the market. Netflix is Google's key content partner for roll-out, though it's easy to imagine so-called "TV Everywhere" services like HBO Go to follow suit. To sweeten the deal, Google is offering three months of Netflix service free -- even to existing subscribers -- with each Chromecast. That would mean a Chromecast would cost a Netflix subscriber $11.
During an announcement event on Wednesday morning in San Francisco that was streamed online, Google senior VP and head of Chrome and Android Sundar Pichai cited a comScore stat that found each month people around the world watch more than 200 billion online videos. He also pointed to video analytics firm Ooyala's measurement that the last year has seen a 270% increase in the number of online videos watched on a tablet or smartphone.
While video is likely the primary content Google had in mind when developing Chromecast, it's not the only one that can be streamed. As with YouTube and Netflix, people who have downloaded Pandora's mobile app to their Android or iOS device will be able to listen to music through Chromecast. And Google is rolling out tools for developers to add similar capabilities to their apps.