Swing, Whiff, Yawn…….

No, I’m not talking about the Mariner’s 2010 season (don’t even get me started), but rather Google’s much-hyped attempt to get into the living room with Google TV.

Let me begin by saying that I believe in the power of iTV (in all of its forms) and the promise it holds for consumers, programmers and carriers alike.  I was an early pioneer in this space, having co-founded the Telco-IPTV industry’s first outsourced video headend and middleware platform – Broadstream Communications, Inc. (now Avail-TVN).  Also, I’m not here to pick on Google specifically, but rather what continues to play out in the iTV space.

In a nutshell, the industry continues to miss the mark when it comes to new iTV platforms, leaving me and many others grossly underwhelmed.  Whether its Roku, Boxee, AppleTV, YahooTV or now Google TV – they represent only new names pushing an old trick.

To see why I’m underwhelmed, let’s take a look at a few key issues:

– Forgettable User-Interface – Current STB manufacturers and service providers continue to provide a “plain-vanilla” user experience, lacking any attempt at engagement beyond the programming they deliver – relying instead on different iterations of the same grid-guide we’ve all used for the past two decades. C’mon people!

– Another box? – One of the biggest issues companies face when looking for wider consumer adoption is the fact that nearly all new iTV services require an additional box under the TV.  People want FEWER boxes under their TV, not more.  To tell a consumer that to get your internet based service they need to go to a retailer and buy a device is like a carrier telling someone that to use their mobile service they need to build their own cell tower (wait, isn’t AT&T Mobility doing that right now???).

– Personalization? – Widgets are nice, but are yesterday’s technology.  Plus, have you ever tried finding the right button that will actually bring the widgets on screen??  Consumers have moved beyond this and are demanding true personalization in their viewing experiences, whether this is online, on their mobile or in the living room.  They want a service that speaks to them and their unique set of preferences.  Duh!

But what continues to drive these issues you ask?  Here are the big ones for starters:

– The monopoly – STB manufacturers such as Cisco/SA, Motorola and Panasonic have a near monopoly on the carrier markets for interactive program guides and set-top-boxes.  This has served to keep many new entrants from gaining meaningful traction and has stifled innovation.  Steve Jobs spoke of this issue when talking about AppleTV remaining just a “hobby” for Apple.  Until the hardware mfg’s are willing to embrace alternate providers of program guides within the STB, or create an open development platform for applications and services similar to what Apple and Android have done, the iTV industry will continue to fall well short of its promise.

– Can’t touch this – MSO’s/DTH/Telco-IPTV carriers all fail miserably when it comes to using customer data to shape new and innovative services.  While I understand their efforts to avoid angering privacy advocates, the truth is consumers are getting more comfortable with their information being used to tailor services that speak to them, provided it’s done in a manner that doesn’t expose their personally identifiable information (PII).  Companies such as Facebook and Foursquare are already doing this, so why not the carriers?  Approached correctly, this could be a huge boon from a product development perspective.  You have the data, now use it!

– Get in the game – Last but not least is the content owner.  I remember back in 2006, talking with content owners about caller-ID and Instant Messaging on the TV and they went nearly apoplectic over the fact that something, anything was going to image over their content.  How dare we enable consumers to talk/chat while their programming was showing!  Well times have changed and these capabilities are becoming more commonplace, but more needs to be done on the content side.  Programmers need to understand that the lines between screens are blurring and interactivity isn’t something relegated to only the web or mobile devices.  From a viewership perspective, the living room still maintains its preferential spot, but it’s time for some new thinking.

For me, the ideal solution is simple, yet requires significant collaboration among the key stakeholders.

First, we need to get rid of the box completely.  What the industry needs is a universal cable card solution that de-tethers the STB from the video display.  This provides greater flexibility for the carrier and consumer in choosing the experience that’s right for them.  Additionally, it removes the STB subsidy requirement that carriers are currently faced with – a huge cost savings in both materials and support.

Second, the platform provider’s need to open the doors – The companies that currently control the STB and interactive program guide markets need to migrate to an open development platform and enable an app-store environment for their middleware.  This gives us the best of both worlds as users get the personalization (services/apps) they want, while the IPG provider can still control the overall environment while inviting third parties to innovate and drive new opportunities.  Somebody please tell me what is wrong with that???

Net, net.  The technology exists, the demand continues to grow, but we as an industry need to do better at bringing television into the 21st century.

As for Google’s attempt to enter the iTV space, while it’s fraught with these and a host of other problems, it has the benefit of (a) its largesse; (b) a fantastic OS in Android; and (c) the patience to allow the market to shake out.

Until then?  Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.