One of the most interesting announcements to come from this year’s Google I/O event from the Android TV perspective, was the JBL LINK Bar. The reason for this is the LINK bar is practically unlike any other Android TV device that has come before it. It is a soundbar, but one which also comes with the ability to Android TV-up a TV. And it marks a fairly big statement as it suggests Google and the Android TV team are starting to see less value in standalone boxes. To be clear, Google and the Android TV team do see value in standalone boxes, just probably not when it comes to direct-to-consumer box products. After all, one of the biggest pushes in Android TV of late has been the move to try to get pay-TV operators on board and nearly all of those solutions will come in box form. However, that is because a box is the operator’s product to begin with. To get any of these operator services in the home a consumer needs to buy an additional device to act as the bridge. Therefore, they are not boxes in the sense of a dedicated Android TV box - where Android TV is the purpose of the box.
Android TV as a feature, not a product
Moves, like with the operators, and now the LINK Bar, clearly suggest that Android TV is best served as an additional feature to an already-existing product. And it makes sense. Instead of trying to convince consumers that they should buy this box because it's Android TV, it seems Google is now more focused on looking at what products consumers might already be in the market for, and making sure Android TV is then incorporated into those products to begin with. Someone needs a soundbar, for example, then they can either opt for just a soundbar, or one that can instantly digitize and modernize their TV consuming habits. Which, of course, is likely to be exactly the type of add-on feature that someone who is buying a soundbar -- for the TV -- might see as valuable. A direction that although seems more evident in the wake of the LINK Bar, is one that has been in effect for some time. As during the last year or two Android TV has been branching out with as many TV set manufacturers as possible and utilizing the exact same fundamental approach. Consumers in the market for a new TV can either opt for just a TV or one that also comes with Android TV as an additional feature. Again, and as already mentioned, the same approach that is also now being applied at the pay-TV operator level. With these operators given the choice of investing heavily in their own solutions to push their own products and subscription-based services or just include Android TV and not only have a quicker-to-market, ready-box - but one that also comes with Android TV as an additional feature. The cycle is clear.
Is there a limit?
This does then raise the question of where does Google and the Android TV team stop with this approach. In other words, where -- or what -- is the limit. In principle there is nothing stopping Android TV being added to the next connected doorbell and while this would be crazy it would continue the approach of ensuring that Android TV gets in more homes as possible, and by any means possible. For example, a soundbar is a speaker and therefore it makes perfect sense that any and all smart-enabled speakers might also now come with Android TV. Although, the chances are good that this is where the other side of Google’s ambitions can be derived from. As instead of Google and the Android TV team following in the Google Assistant footsteps (any device will do and the more the merrier), Android TV is only of benefit if it is able to take advantage of a display. Therefore, at the very least a display does need to be in the vicinity of the product boasting Android TV functionality. For example, your average on-the-go, built-for-outdoors, rugged, waterproof Bluetooth speaker is unlikely to come with Android TV integration, ever. As its primary purpose is for use outside of the home. Yes, it can be used in the home and to serve Android TV when inside, but it would go against the fundamental principle of requiring that display - unlike a pay-TV box, a TV set, or a soundbar. This logic automatically then also rules out most other devices and products that are primarily designed to be portable. Yes, a soundbar is technically portable -- as in it can easily be moved from one place to another and connected to different TV sets in or outside the home -- but its one constant is it requires stationary positioning for usage. Another way to look at this would be whether or not it is wall-connected or battery-powered, with anything battery-powered immediately ruled out of the equation. Evidently, the unit will also need to be relatively local to the main TV display (within the home), and ideally directly connected to it. While these are not necessarily direct requirements for the technology (a doorbell could in theory stream Android TV to a TV), such a solution adds additional and unnecessary issues such as the quality of connection and broadcasting. Aspects Google is unlikely to want to be negatively associated with a platform like this. Therefore, when Google talked about the LINK Bar being the first of these new “hybrid devices” the scope for what these devices could be is both large enough that it can include novel solutions like a soundbar, but restricted enough that there are very clear ‘living room’ limitations in mind.
What about the Pixel Player?
With Google thinking outside of the box, it is no longer thinking of the box, or even reasons why consumers should buy an Android TV device purely for Android TV’s sake. In itself, the platform is no longer being sold as a product to consumers directly, but instead as a service that is included with products consumers are already buying. Another way to look at this, it that if the logic is correct and this is the actual route to adoption Google has honed in on now, then the chances of a product like the ‘Pixel Player’ (in box form) being released is almost non-existent. Of course, third-party manufacturers will be able to continue to release their own box solutions but this business model would suggest that it might be pointless for them to do so unless they offer another reason for consumers to buy a standalone box. NVIDIA and Xiaomi are both perfect and opposite cases in point here. For example, the chances of Xiaomi benefiting from the release of a new Android TV box in markets that are already being served by Android TV through TVs, soundbars, and so on, would seem very small. In contrast, NVIDIA has never just sold an Android TV box and has always positioned its solution as a hybrid TV/gaming console. Therefore, someone like NVIDIA will likely continue to be able to benefit from newer SHIELD Android TV releases due to its other -- and arguably main -- selling point, gaming.
However, even though the chances of a Pixel Player coming through now seem slim, it is only if the Pixel Player arrives in box form. And this is where things could get interesting as Google has spent the last couple of years entering the home audio space and most, if not all, of its solutions are so far designed with a stationary position in the home in mind. It has even named the product family line after this exact positioning, Google Home. In fact, this approach could actually mean the chances of new Google-branded Android TV hardware have now increased since Google I/O, as there could be a very real scenario where a next-generation Google Home speaker(s) comes loaded with Android TV. Alternatively, a soundbar with Android TV could become one of the next Google Home-branded products to be announced. Instead of the ‘Pixel Player.’ it just might be better to now think in terms of a Home Player.