Is Google Thinking Inside the Box?

It's got YouTube. Is the boob tube next?

An interesting TechCrunch story passed along an unconfirmed rumor that Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) is working on an open-source platform for set-top boxes.

It's obvious, right? Everything seems to be pointing in that direction. The company's recent OpenSocial drive for social-networking sites, and its Android initiative for a mobile phone operating system, prove that Google is bent on mastering all media in a developer-friendly manner.  Why wouldn't it want to be a TV star, too?

Previous moves have pointed in that direction. The company's purchases of YouTube and radio advertising giant dMarc, and its pending deal for DoubleClick, find Google opening its chunky wallet the widest for companies that will expand its ad reach beyond targeted text spots.

It's important to note that Google probably won't get into the hardware side of this business. Just as rumors of Google putting out the Gphone ultimately gave way to a software-based solution for other wireless handset makers, I'm guessing that Google would rather stick to the high-margin software behind the engines.

This move may also bury dreams that Google might eventually buy TiVo (Nasdaq: TIVO  ) . Tim Beyers thought it was inevitable two years ago. I did, too, and a deal would still make sense on the surface. TiVo is the only DVR brand that matters. It's also rich in patents, has limited Web-browsing functionality, and boasts an installed base of more than 4 million subscribers. Google would undoubtedly love to harvest its marketing and data-collecting ambitions as well.

However, snapping up TiVo would also create an appearance of bias on Google's part, dissuading other set-top heavies from adapting an open-source platform. Would Motorola (NYSE: MOT  ) or Cisco's (Nasdaq: CSCO  ) Scientific-Atlanta hop on any gravy train that would ultimately enrich TiVo's parent? Probably not. The same can be said for cable and satellite television providers like DirecTV (NYSE: DTV  ) and Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA  ) , which want ultimate control over their subscribers.

A Google purchase of TiVo would work only if Big G planned to implode TiVo's hardware side, then exploit its patent-rich software side to drum up the mother of all set-top box solutions. Such a pricey move seems highly unlikely.

Still, even if TechCrunch couldn't confirm the rumor, how can Google not be thinking inside the box these days? With Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) making headway on that front, thanks to its Xbox 360's success as a home-theater entertainment appliance, set-top boxes are one more platform for Google to duke it out with Mr. Softy. With all fairness to Howard Stern, Google seems the most likely candidate to become The King of All Media these days.


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