Google TV: history maker or just another part of history?

Jim BartholdGoogle TV has arrived with all the fanfare of a video entertainment/ information/ broadband/ whatever space game changer. Those who love Google TV think it will alter the cable television landscape and provide millions, if not billions, of consumers with free TV or at least a la carte programming from which they can pick and choose at more reasonable prices than the bundles cable and satellite guys throw down their throats.

Those who hate Google TV see it as just another intrusion into the broadband space, a novelty or a niche; something that's interesting and momentarily exciting, but hardly more than another video-on-demand offering with a plateful of somewhat limited, amateurish video.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts at Cable Show 2010The truth of Google TV probably lies between those two extremes, if only because Google has proven to be a broadband juggernaut. While Comcast's Brian Roberts used his bully pulpit at Cable Show 2010 to proclaim that without cable and its broadband innovations, Google would never have seen the light at the end of the fiber, the reality is that Google knew what to do when presented with the broadband pipe.

(Photo: Comcast CEO Brian Roberts. SOURCE: The Cable Show)

It's unlikely that the search engine will forget how to use what's there now, just because it involves TV.

On the other hand, TV entertainment and the delivery of same is not an easy space to crack. If it were easy, cable would not have flourished for more than a half-century. If it were easy, the deep pocketed telcos would have swiped aside the entrepreneurial cable operators like annoying gnats. Instead, one of cable's own, Comcast, is trying to break into the Big Three of broadcasting.

Still, some big companies have pushed to find a niche in cable and failed. Microsoft, for instance, seemed forever to be offering a new version of Microsoft TV that was going to challenge cable and the way people watch television. Every cable show, it seemed, the folks at Microsoft trotted out their brightest minds to demonstrate their latest versions of TV and trade scribes dutifully wrote about the software giant's move on cable. And every year nothing really happened.

It's the same for other industry behemoths. In 1999, amid a hurricane, Sony and Cablevision announced a gigantic set-top deal that locked out incumbent duopoly General Instrument (now Motorola) and Scientific-Atlanta (Cisco). Sony, the word was, would change the way digital television was sent to cable systems. Recently the FCC said something had to be done about cable's set-top duopoly--Motorola and Cisco. There was no mention of Sony.

Pace CEO Neil GaydonOf course, things change in an international marketplace where broadband has redefined entertainment and information delivery. My colleague, Jim O'Neill, reports today at FierceIPTV that Pace has pushed past Motorola and is shipping more digital boxes than any other manufacturer in the world. At the same time, it's tough to find a Pace box atop a TV in the U.S.--and like it or not, the U.S. leads in cable television.

(Photo: Pace CEO Neil Gaydon. SOURCE: Pace plc)

Perhaps Google TV will crack the cable industry and break apart the 50-year-old brotherhood. Perhaps it will join with Apple TV as new forces in the entertainment and information delivery space. Or perhaps not. It's said that those who study history understand the present and the future. If history's correct, Google TV will become a niche, at best, or a fun factoid in a dozen years.

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