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Can Google's Android TV Take on an Updated Apple TV?

By Sam Mattera - Sep 8, 2015 at 3:02PM

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It doesn't seem liklely. Unveiled more than a year ago, Android TV just hasn't caught on.

The Android TV-powered SHIELD. Photo: Google

Last year, Google (GOOG -1.48%) (GOOGL -1.38%) unveiled Android TV, an innovative new version of its mobile operating system designed exclusively for streaming set-top boxes. Android TV devices, including Google's own Nexus Player, have access to an app store, offer systemwide voice search, and can play video games with dedicated, console-style controllers.

In short, Android TV is remarkably similar to what most are expecting from Apple's (AAPL -1.07%) next set-top box. On Wednesday, Apple is expected to unveil the fourth generation Apple TV, running a modified version of iOS 9. According to 9to5Mac, the device will connect to the app store, support Siri-based voice search, and offer owners the ability to play video games using dedicated controllers.

Given the success of past Apple TV boxes and its loyal base of customers and developers, the new Apple TV is likely to emerge as a popular product. Of course, it will face competition from traditional video game consoles and other set-top box alternatives -- but surprisingly, not from Google.

Google fails again?
Google has tried to take control of the living room several times. In 2010, it launched Google TV, a next-generation smart TV platform that was, in many ways, ahead of its time. Unfortunately, Google TV suffered from a lack of support and a notoriously confusing remote. It was widely regarded as a failure, and most Google TV devices were discontinued by the end of 2012.

In 2013, Google unveiled the Chromecast, a cheap streaming stick. Chromecast has been successful -- the search giant has sold more than 17 million of them -- but it isn't a true smart TV platform. Chromecast doesn't have its own interface, relying instead on a connected phone, tablet, or PC to function.

Perhaps aware of Chromecast's limitations, Google unveiled Google TV's successor, Android TV, at its I/O conference last year. Compared to Google TV, Android TV is far less complex, with a standard interface composed of rectangles and a simplified remote. Android TV connects to the Google Play app store, uses Google's excellent voice search technology, and supports Xbox-style controllers, including one Google created in partnership with ASUS.

Unfortunately for the search giant, Android TV just hasn't gained much traction. Google released the Nexus Player last fall to demonstrate the power of the Android TV platform, but it was widely panned. In its review, The Verge wrote that the Nexus Player suffered from several strange bugs and a lack of apps, ultimately concluding that Google had "lots of work left to do."

Last month, Parks Associates reported that Google was the second-largest seller of dedicated streaming devices in 2014. But all of its 19% market share came from the Chromecast rather than its Nexus Player.

Google's hardware partners haven't supported it
Still, Google never intended its Nexus devices to carry its platforms. Nexus smartphones and tablets serve to demonstrate Google's vision of what Android should be, but they've never been big sellers. If Android TV is successful, it'll be because of Google's hardware partners.

Razer, a PC gaming peripherals company, and graphics card giant NVIDIA have released Android TV set-top boxes of their own (the Forge TV and the SHIELD, respectively), but neither has been well-received. CNet gave the SHIELD a modest 6.9 out of 10, lamenting its high price tag and lack of apps. The Forge TV has been reviewed 52 times on Amazon; 67% of the reviewers have given it only one star.

Sony, Sharp, and Philips have released some actual television sets powered by Android TV, but combined, the three firms represent only a modest share of the larger TV industry. Samsung and LG have supported Google's Android operating system when it comes to smartphones and tablets, but power their smart TVs with their exclusive operating systems (Samsung uses Tizen, LG relies on WebOS). Combined, the two Korean tech giants account for about one-third of television sets sold globally, but neither seems likely to support Google's living room platform anytime soon.

If 9to5Mac's report is accurate, the new Apple TV won't be particularly revolutionary in terms of features. Yet it could ultimately be far more successful than Android TV.

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