Android TV Desperately Needs A Cheap 'Made by Google' Stick

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Android TV needs a sub-$50 Made by Google stick to more greatly impact the home consumer market.

This is an area where Google has missed a trick in the past and the platform is being held back because of it.

The counter to this argument is usually how Android TV is seeing success elsewhere. This is true. In the operator/OTT market, Android TV is doing well with many companies having already turned to the platform to power their set-top boxes and devices.

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The problem is this is not the same Android TV. Those utilizing the Android TV platform to power their devices are usually keen to customize the experience, and greatly. A prime example is AT&T and its new set-top box. While the box runs on Android TV, the platform is buried beneath an AT&T interface.

This results in devices that are primarily Android TV in name and code only. For example, a significant number of consumers who opt for the DIRECTV box will probably be unaware that it is an Android TV box. They'll simply see it as a DIRECTV box that also has Netflix and the Google Play Store.

You are not buying (or leasing) the DIRECTV box because it is Android TV, but because it is DIRECTV.

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To some, this might highlight the true power of Android TV – a platform that can be as in-your-face or hidden as the device-maker wants it to be. From a branding perspective, however, it adds little value.

Android TV away from home

Hospitality is proving to be another area where Android TV is doing well. This is another area that has seen massive change thanks to streaming and hotels are a big part of that change. The next time you book a room for your vacation or business trip, there's a good chance the room's TV will let you cast content from your phone. At the very least, sign in, and access your own Netflix account.

In a number of cases, the interface you'll be using will be Android TV. Again, it won't look like Android TV, but it will be. One of those leading the charge in this area is Dish with its EVOLVE platform. Just like how operators are serving Android TV to set-top box customers, Dish's EVOLVE platform serves Android TV to hotel guests. Hotels are able to utilize (and customize) the platform to provide guests with a smarter and richer entertainment experience and any hotels that sign up to EVOLVE will inadvertently be signing up to Android TV. That's success in Google's eyes.

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Inadvertently is the key word here as just like operator customers, hotels might not be fully aware they are using Android TV. Neither will the hotel guests. By the time a hotel guest uses the TV, the user interface has been changed and adapted to suit the needs of Dish. In most cases, it will have been changed once again to suit the hotel in question.

Yes, there are instances where Android TV is doing well. This is even before taking the built-in TV market into consideration as that's another market Google has aggressively attacked. If you buy a TV in the U.S., there's a good chance the TV will be powered by Android TV.

Amazon and Roku

No one is buying any of the mentioned products/services for Android TV. First and foremost, those opting for a new TV are going to be interested in the brand. Or the size, the resolution, the number of HDMI ports, and so on. Whether it happens to run Android TV, Fire TV OS, or Roku OS will be inconsequential. To some, it may be an extra benefit, but to those more invested in a different platform, a disadvantage. To most average consumers, it will simply be irrelevant. What matters is whether it has Netflix, Amazon Prime, Spotify.

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This is where Android TV's problem currently lies. Google has done a great job at selling the platform to operators, to the hospitality industry, and to TV makers. The same cannot be said when it comes to selling direct to consumers. That's not the case with Amazon and Fire TV, or Roku and Roku OS.

Amazon and Roku own the home consumer market in the U.S. right now. This is the direct result of Amazon and Roku's clear intention to appeal directly to consumers. Again, in the years to come Google might claim more users than either Amazon or Roku simply due to more users being served Android TV through one of its "partners," but that's hardly the same thing. Having a dominant position based on the consumer understanding and appreciation of the platform is different. Having consumers buy into a platform because of the platform is a real long-term strategy.

Price continues to be a driving force

It is no coincidence that Amazon and Roku both have a $50 (or less) streaming stick. This is not a device that's aimed at the more tech-savvy/enthusiast market, but one intended as a platform gateway product. In both Amazon and Roku's cases, their sticks are priced low enough to be considered impulse purchases. Their small and discrete size and shape only further adds to their appeal.

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In spite of being a gateway product, these cheap products are also proving popular with tech-savvy users. Whether it is a cheap way to access Netflix or Prime Video on a secondary TV, or an easy to master solution for children, parents, grandparents, only having to pay $30, $40 or $50 becomes a driving force in the decision-making process. This applies equally to both new and experienced buyers.

This is the power of offering a cheap entry-level streaming device. It removes many of the obstacles consumers face and right now Google is completely missing out on this market. Not accidentally either, or for that matter, through ignorance.

Chromecast is an Android TV stick hurdle

Google is acutely aware of the power of entry-level products. Arguably, Google is one of the leaders in this field thanks to its Chromecast products. The Google Chromecast has always been positioned as an entry-level product and priced accordingly. Yes, you can pay more for a premium version, but you don't have to. The Chromecast is readily available from most retailers and a bargain at just $35. This price and availability has led to the Chromecast becoming an extremely popular Google product. Again, arguably, it's one of the most successful Made by Google products to date.

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Google's decision to not offer its own entry-level Android TV solution is likely to be intentional. One of the reasons may simply be Google does not want to step on its partners' toes. This is especially true right now as it looks for partner support in chasing those larger customer bases. If Google was to sell a $40 or $50 Android TV stick then it might be harder to sell the platform to operators, TV and white-label device-makers.

Considering Google is ultimately seeking those larger adoption markets, Google may have decided it's better to stay out of the consumer market altogether.

If that is the case, then one might argue Google is doing what's ultimately right for Android TV. Although that would only be what's right for Android TV from Google and its partners' perspective. All of those partners are only on board as they too are looking to sell the consumer something. Whether it be a service like AT&T and DIRECT, a TV like like Sony or Sharp, or a "modern" in-room entertainment service like hotels, all of these Android TV partners want to sell you something else.

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None of them want to sell you Android TV, specifically. This includes Google.

The reliance on third-party devices

With Google out of the stick picture, it has been left to third-parties to step in and fill the gap. We have seen this most recently with the new new AirTV stick. There's also rumors NVIDIA's new SHIELD TV device might arrive in stick form too.

From the consumer perspective, this is good news as any stick solution is better than no stick. However, the third-party market can lead to other problems that a Google-made stick would avoid. The user experience and after-purchase support are two examples.

A benefit of opting for an Amazon or Roku stick is the first-party nature of the product. This not only means you can count on the experience to be as the OS-maker intended, but also purchase with a good degree of confidence you'll get the latest features and security updates in a timely fashion. As we've already seen from Android TV in general, that's not an expectation you should automatically have.

NVIDIA is an exception to this rule. NVIDIA has made software support a priority with the SHIELD line and that's something to be commended. One would assume if an NVIDIA stick arrived, it too would be fairly well-supported. However, the problem with an NVIDIA stick is that it could be expensive. SHIELD devices are feature-rich and powerful and this combination typically results in products that are far more expensive than competing platform counterparts. A SHIELD stick might indeed be cheaper than a SHIELD set-top box, but that's not the same as being cheap, or even competitively priced.

What's more, a SHIELD stick brings us back to the same original issue. It will do well to sell the NVIDIA brand, but not necessarily the "Android TV" brand.

Android TV is far too reliant on third-party brands and products.

Without them, Android TV does not exist. This is dangerous approach by Google as although Android mobile has done well using this method, there's no guarantee Google can replicate Android mobile's success in the TV space. If anything, Google should not be trying to replicate Android mobile.

TVs are very different to smartphones

Amazon and Roku will continue to sell their sticks and consumers will continue to buy them. More to the point, consumers will continue to become accustomed to using Fire TV or Roku OS. Accustomed to Fire TV or Roku OS being their preferred TV platform.

This is where Google may find a problem later on. While Google might think its business-to-business approach is the real win, it might not be in the long-term. If the majority of home customers become reliant on the Fire TV or Roku OS experience at home, they will start to want the same experience when away from home. When buying a new TV. When signing up to a new service provider. Staying at a hotel once or twice a year will not drive customer purchase decisions compared to the platform they use at home. Even if it could, in most of these scenarios, consumers will be unaware they are using Android TV in the first place.

Those partners will not be deaf to this. They will listen to the feedback they get and eventually might get the message that no one outside the enthusiast market knows or even cares about Android TV. Companies will quickly switch allegiance if buyers demand they switch and just as quickly, Google's power-play moves could result in yet another service en route to Google's product graveyard.

An Android TV stick is needed

Even if assuming the Android mobile blueprint can be successfully replicated with Android TV, you only have to look at Google's investment in its Pixel phone line to see that first-party products matter. Having others embrace your platform is great, but so is having your own products that deliver the experience you want. This is not just speculative either. We are already seeing a repeat in the Android TV world of the OS fragmentation problem that has plagued Android mobile.

A $50 Made by Google Android TV might not solve the fragmentation problem, but it would give Google a footing to compete for new customers. Right now, that's not possible with new customers having to heavily invest in other products and services to access Android TV.

A cheap Android TV stick would certainly change that.