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Google's Next Chromecast Could Look More Like a Roku Box

By Stephen Lovely - Mar 24, 2020 at 6:05AM

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It's more than a "remote" possibility that Google is changing the look of its streaming TV device.

Among streaming TV devices, Alphabet's (GOOG 4.41%) (GOOGL 4.16%) Google Chromecast is fairly unique. Its platform -- to the extent that it even has a "platform" -- is rooted in Google's Google Cast wireless transfer protocol and Chrome browser, and the device relies on another device to "cast" and control the streaming video. By contrast, competitors such as Roku's (ROKU 9.71%) Roku platform, Amazon's (AMZN 3.60%) Fire TV platform, and Apple's (AAPL 1.89%) tvOS keep all streaming-related tasks together on one device and put their controls on something pretty familiar to TV viewers: a remote control.

The "missing" remote is one of the more visible signs of Chromecast's unusual approach to turning "dumb" TVs smart. But that difference will reportedly be disappearing soon. According to a report from 9to5 Google, Google is working on a Chromecast device that will have a remote -- and that's not the only reason this reported new device should catch the attention of leaders at Roku, Amazon, and Apple.

A couple using a TV remote in their living room

Image source: Getty Images.

The odd one out

Google's Chromecast Ultra is currently the latest and greatest of Google's Chromecast devices. It's 4K-capable and boasts improved Wi-Fi connectivity, but it still works in fundamentally the same way as the original first-generation Chromecast. Users plug the dongle into a TV's HDMI port, then connect the Chromecast device to their home network using an app. Once everything is set up, Chromecast users can select something to watch on their computer, smartphone, or tablet. With the touch of an on-screen button on that separate device, users can sling their live stream up onto their TV via the Chromecast device.

There are ways to switch the video feed and audio off on the separate device and view the content on the TV alone, but that separate device is still connected to the streaming experience. Controls for pausing and rewinding are on that device. The Chromecast is technically streaming the video on its own (Chromecasts run a stripped-down version of Google's Chrome browser and manage the streaming themselves via apps within Chrome). But, as far as the user is concerned, the Chromecast might as well just be some sort of antenna that picks up a broadcast from the device doing the "casting."

This is not, of course, how most other streaming devices work. A Roku streaming stick plugs into a TV's HDMI slot, but that's where most technical similarities end. While Chromecast users pick out an app on their tablet or other device, Roku users navigate menus displayed on their TV screen, controlling the Roku with a Roku remote.

Choosing which specific title to watch on Netflix or rent on Amazon is something Chromecast users do on their tablet or other device, too; Roku users do it all via the Roku, viewing every part of the process on their TV screen.

Things finally look the same when both devices are displaying streaming content, but technical differences remain. While both the Roku and Chromecast do the streaming work on their own hardware, the Chromecast remains tethered to the casting device in important ways, maintaining a communication channel so the viewer can use that second device to control the Chromecast stream.

No other popular streaming platform works like Chromecast. Google's tech-industry competitors aren't following the Chromecast playbook: Fire TV and tvOS (the platform that runs on Apple's Apple TV devices) both operate more or less like Roku does. Even Google itself has a Roku-like platform: Android TV, which runs on streaming devices, smart TVs, and set-top boxes (Google is making big licensing moves in the set-top box market, including a deal with DISH Network in India).

That was then, this is now

Chromecast has always been unusual, but it was less unusual when it first debuted. That's because Chromecast had relatively few competitors early on. Its 2013 debut got it into customers' hands ahead of some competitors, including Fire TV (2014). Apple's Apple TV brand existed, but it was widely viewed as neglected by its parent company; that didn't change until 2015 when Apple released a major new iteration of the device.

Roku was the one big Chromecast alternative back in 2013, and the difference between the two streaming methods could easily be interpreted, back then, as the two leading flavors of home streaming -- rather than as an industry standard with one odd product line left out, as things could be seen now.

Things have changed. Parks Associates analysis in 2014 found that Chromecast had replaced Apple TV in second place behind Roku. Its market share was 20%. In 2019, though, Parks Associates found that only 11% of all streaming players installed in the United States are Chromecast devices. Meanwhile, Roku has maintained its status as an industry leader, and Fire TV has surged to a 30% market share.

Google's new device

This brings us to Google's new device. The Chromecast brand is far from dead, and some arguments for Chromecast's method are still valid. Say a streamer is watching YouTube on their commute home (on a train, hopefully) and wants to pick up that stream on their TV when they get home, right where they left off on their phone? A tap of the phone is all it takes to cast the stream to a Chromecast-equipped smart TV. This is still what Chromecast does best. But what Chromecast doesn't do is make it easy to choose a Netflix title with the family gathered around the big-screen TV. What are you going to do -- pass the phone around?

So, it makes sense that -- assuming these reports are accurate -- Google is looking to build a device that can do both. The next-gen Chromecast will reportedly differ from previous versions in crucial ways. Google is combining its Chromecast functionality with its Android TV platform and designing a streaming device that comes equipped with a remote and offers on-screen navigation and apps. 9to5 Google reports that the device, codenamed "sabrina" will run "full-fledged Android TV."

Back in the fight

The use of the brand Chromecast brand makes sense, as Chromecast has long been Google's main connected TV hardware effort (Android TV is mostly licensed out to other manufacturers, and Google's brand is not typically attached to these devices in the manner that, for example, Roku's brand is attached to Roku/TCL TVs). But with a "full-fledged" version of Android TV on board, this new device is, as reported, less an iteration of the Chromecast than it is a brand-new Android TV streaming stick with Chromecast functionality onboard.

With Android TV on its flagship video streaming hardware device, Google has created more direct -- and in all likelihood, more effective -- competition to Roku and Amazon's device-and-platform packages.

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