Google is taking another swing at commanding the television with its new Chromecast, a low-cost accessory that plugs into a TV and allows users to stream video, share tabs from the Google Chrome browser, or play music from their smartphones, tablet or computer on the big screen.
The big selling point? The Chromecast lets users stream or share while also allowing the device to do other tasks.
With the Chromecast, analysts said, Google appears to have learned a lesson from some of its own missteps and those of its competitors. The small device, which fits into a TV's HDMI port, eliminates some of the usual frustrations with TV streaming. For example, while Apple TV and, to a lesser extent, the Xbox allow users to beam some content from their mobile devices to the television, the mobile devices then can't be used for anything else at the same time. Google says that the Chromecast will enable multitasking on the laptop, tablet or other device without interrupting what's streaming on the TV.
Chromecast also comes with built-in support not only for Google devices but also for Apple's iPhone and Google's Chrome browser on Macs and PCs. That means that nearly every television can now get a Google upgrade — a major shift for the competitive landscape, analysts said.
Now, said James McQuivey, a principal analyst at Forrester, "it's not a war of smart versus dumb TVs — it's a war of which smart TV."
The Chromecast hasn't caught up with the content offerings of competitors Roku and Apple TV — it launched with support for Netflix, but other popular services such as Pandora are yet to come, the company says. But during its announcement Wednesday, Google pointed out that it's easy for developers to add Chromecast support to their existing apps, which could have the double benefit of beefing up content for Chromecast quickly and giving apps on Google Play a little something extra that competitors don't offer.
And, finally, there's the price. Apple TV and Roku are both priced to move with their newest models starting at $99. Chromecast costs $35.
That lower price, McQuivey said, draws a sharp line between Google and competitors such as Apple and Microsoft and shows that the company has a different vision for how to make money off the television. Apple, he explained, aims for profit from the sale of its popular devices and won't take a run at a new product unless it believes it can make money off the sales of that hardware. Microsoft is splitting the difference by packaging multimedia entertainment in a dedicated device of its own, the Xbox One.
But for Google — which hasn't made much inroad with its own TV devices — the motivations are now completely different.
"Google doesn't care about making any money on the device," McQuivey said. "The future is about software."
This new strategy doesn't even focus so much on selling the content, he noted. It's aimed more at gathering information on consumer habits — data that Google could combine with search and other data from its services to expand its user profiles.
"This is a deep, deep relationship built with you," he said. "It opens potential for them to do much more for you than they could before."
The Chromecast is now available on Google Play, Amazon.com and BestBuy.com, and will be available in U.S. Best Buy stores starting Sunday.