Think of Google TV as the second season of Project Android: open-source software, backed by industry partners, created in hopes of unlocking a potentially huge new repository of Internet searches.
In 2005, when Google first acquired the team that would develop Android, smartphone users were browsing the Web, but the quality of the experience was pretty poor, until 2007, when Apple released the iPhone. Android, released a little more than a year later, aimed to provide the same level of quality as Apple's iOS software but to spread it across different hardware makers and wireless carriers in hopes of boosting mobile Internet search.
As Logitech gets ready to unveil its Revue set-top box running the Android-based Google TV software later today, it's not hard to see the same sequence playing itself out. In this scenario, Google and other TV software companies are butting heads with powerful cable and satellite companies, who have for years resisted the encroachment of the Internet into the living room. More and more Internet-connected TVs are sold every year, and several companies, such as Roku and Boxee, have found a modicum of success building Internet-connected boxes.
But no one has come up with a breakout hit that brings the Internet to TVs the way the iPhone changed the way the Internet was experienced on mobile phones. Google, along with well-known partners such as Logitech, Sony, Intel, Best Buy, and Dish Network, are betting that Google TV could be that type of product.
TV as peanut butter cup
Google TV is the Internet in your TV. Or, it's your TV on the Internet. Google doesn't really care which description you prefer.
The idea is for partners such as Logitech to build Internet-connected boxes--essentially stripped-down PCs running Intel's Atom chip--that are capable of sitting between one's current cable or satellite receiver and the television. Those boxes will run a version of Android optimized for larger screens and remote-control navigation that enables users to search both the Internet and the traditional provider's offerings for particular shows, as well as bring up Internet applications without having to pause or navigate away from their shows.
There's nothing groundbreaking about this part of the strategy. Tech companies have been trying to put sophisticated Internet-connected computers alongside televisions for nearly a decade.
But few people have hopped aboard. Intel and Microsoft's Media Center PCs went nowhere. Television makers have installed software developed by Yahoo, but performance has been mixed. Gaming-console makers such as Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony offer streaming Internet video from services like Netflix but don't integrate regular television content. And Apple has famously dabbled in this space with Apple TV but locks the device to the iTunes Store and refuses to call the product anything more than "a hobby."
In some cases, it's because the technology hasn't been compelling enough to get people to change their habits. But it's also certainly true that cable and satellite providers have done little to support the tech industry, when it comes to Internet-delivered video in the living room.
The great green hope
This eerie parallel to the way wireless carriers held back innovation on mobile software for years is one reason why Google TV--based on an Android core--was created. The software on most set-top boxes and DVRs distributed by cable and satellite providers has gotten better over time, but it still frustrates users with terrible search interfaces, awkward navigation, and extremely slow performance.
Google thinks that it can be the one to raise the bar for television software, finally giving people something they enjoy using without necessarily having to "cut the cord," the popular industry term for canceling your cable subscription and getting all your video content over the Internet or on DVDs. Companies such as Verizon Communications, which are starting to worry about cord-cutting, might find products like Google TV a little more palatable.
Still, Google's long-term ambitions are clearly aimed at transferring power from the cable and satellite companies to the Internet. It convinced four influential content companies--Turner Broadcasting, HBO, NBC Universal, and the NBA--to develop customized versions of their content for Google TV. It plans to allow content companies to also create applications to showcase their content.
In other words, Google would like very much for those companies to think Internet-first when it comes to producing future content. It can still sell Google TV by pointing out that it doesn't sacrifice the tried-and-true TV experience as it opens up a whole new world of TV options. But there's one huge reason why Google likes the Internet more than cable or satellite.
It's the data, stupid
During three months each year, the network and cable industry measures ratings during what are known as the "sweeps" periods. Those ratings set advertising rates for the year, influencing how ad dollars are spent across different networks.
But the ratings themselves are kind of a joke. Just 25,000 households contain a Nielsen ratings box, according to a recent iO9 article, and those boxes don't always do a very good job of measuring content consumed in the DVR era.
What Google TV potentially promises an advertiser is a much more comprehensive set of data, both in quantity and quality. Google has said it won't sell ads on Google TV for the first year, but it's only a matter of time before they appear, and if Google TV proves popular, it could be a shot in the arm for both Google's huge search ad business and its smaller-but-growing display ad business.
And if content companies then see the light, and they start producing more compelling content for the Internet (content companies go where the ad dollars go), fewer and fewer people will see the point in maintaining that expensive cable or satellite connection.
Still, even assuming that Google TV is a success, this transition will take years to happen, as live sporting events, awards shows, and wall-to-wall breaking-news coverage aren't going anywhere just yet.
The price is meh
Perhaps the single-largest factor that could hurt Google TV at the onset is price. Google and its partners haven't commented on pricing--likely one of the key details to emerge later today and next week at Sony's Google TV event--but other competitors in the Internet-delivered video space have been busily cutting prices ahead of Google's announcement.
A Roku box with all the bells and whistles is just $99. The new Apple TV is the same price. The Boxee Box is expected to arrive next month for $199. And there are several Blu-ray Disc players in the $199 range that can deliver Internet-based content.
Will consumers pay that much, considering what they've already spent on DVRs, monthly subscriptions, gaming consoles, and DVD players? Obviously, not everyone will feel the need to have all those things, as their usage patterns shift, but the expense and hassle of dealing with just another box (not to mention another remote) could cause some to balk initially.
Google the software company
Google still means search to the world, but with each little step further into the software development world, Google is becoming a far broader kind of company. Not content with directing people around the Internet, Google also wants to be the one to influence how they use computers, overturning the conventional wisdom at every step.
A lot of things are going to have to fall into place for Google TV to turn into something as successful as Android. Still, there's little doubt that the television industry could use an injection of compelling software one of these days.
The next couple of weeks will shed more light on whether Google TV is another Android or another Viiv.
CNET's John Falcone contributed to this report.