Google needs to reclaim its Android TV platform

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Android TV is one of the few devices the company doesn’t make, leaving the platform’s weak reputation in the hands of third-party manufacturers

After a year and a half of waiting, I finally got my hands on the JBL Link Bar, an Android TV + soundbar combo first revealed at Google I/O 2018. You can check out my full review of the device on my YouTube channel, but the TL;DR is: I was severely disappointed.

Despite the Link Bar’s best efforts, the Nvidia Shield still reigns supreme as the premiere Android TV device, and virtually the only one you should consider if interested in migrating to the streaming platform.

Which got me thinking, why? Why is it that a 2017 device (or heck, even the original 2015 model) can still run circles around its (admittedly small field of) competitors? And more importantly, why does Nvidia hold the title, rather than, say, Google itself?

To be clear, I have nothing against Nvidia; they produce quality hardware, and their own Tegra processor is the reason why they’ve consistently held onto their Android TV title. But it does say a lot that Google is not the go-to for newcomers to Android TV, rather than a third-party manufacturer. And that’s chalked up in large part to a growing sense of apathy toward the streaming platform from the search giant.

Since Google started reclaiming a lot of its platforms and focusing on producing sector-leading hardware (i.e. the Pixel phones, Google Home products), it’s become more and more clear where the company’s priorities lie in terms of investment. The clearest example of this is looking at which devices have been rebranded. Nexus phones, rather than being passed around to a variety of OEMs, were brought in-house and remarketed specifically as Google phones. Android Wear was renamed Wear OS once Google started making their own smartwatches. More recently, when Google merged with Nest, one of the first things it did was rename the product to Google Nest, to make it clear that the products were Google-owned and -created.

As “Google”-branded products are becoming synonymous with quality, the “Android”-branded products continue to carry an increasingly-negative perception. Remember when it was a big deal that the word “Android” wasn’t mentioned once during the Google Pixel 3 announcement event? In some circles, the word “Android” is synonymous with “second-class citizen,” and while Google has rescued some of its “Android”-branded products in a bid to distance them from that connotation (i.e. Android Pay re-branded to Google Pay, Android Wear re-branded to Wear OS), those that remain under the “Android” umbrella continue to be tarnished by the name.

So what’s left under the “Android” brand? The largest two would be Android TV devices and Android Auto headunits, both of which are not manufacturered by Google directly, continuing the perception that Android is just a cheap operating system that Google will pimp out to any low-budget product. And for the time being, it seems Google doesn’t have a problem with this. As Google distances itself further and further from the “Android” moniker, the less it is damaged by the operating system’s reputation.

Without investment from Google, the Android TV ecosystem becomes a crapshoot of (excluding the Nvidia Shield) largely cheaper low- to mid-tier products from lesser-known phone OEMs like Xiaomi and outside parties like JBL. And that’s a shame, because, while Android TV in its current state is perfectly functional and even saw a recent refresh with Android 8.0 Oreo, it’s unlikely to improve without hardware investment from Google, until support for the platform is eventually abandoned altogether. Without a “Google TV” (ignoring the company’s first run with that name), the platform has an expiration date.

It begs the question, though: why doesn’t Google enter the Android TV pool? Shouldn’t it care about its creation? I’d be remiss to not say that Google has its hands in a lot of pots, from search to web products to phone manufacturing to smart devices, so some things are certainly going to get more attention than others. But the Android TV platform has a lot of potential, and all the ingredients are there for a high-quality product should Google ever choose to invest.

Let’s compare the platform to its three biggest rivals: Apple TV, Roku and Fire TV. Like the age-old iPhone vs. Android debate, it’s unlikely Android TV will ever convince Apple fanatics to leave their walled garden and convert, so we’ll just skip that. As for Roku, its lead of the streaming world is due in large part to the fact that Roku OS comes built-in as the de-facto operating system in a lot of smart TVs nowadays; a stronger push by Amazon or Google could contest that. Amazon, in the meantime, seems more concerned about making money for hardware sales rather than licensing its software, since its Fire OS is 1) just Android under the hood and 2) absolute hot garbage that’s bloated with advertisements. One thing I admire about Android TV is the option (not even buried that deep in the settings either) to turn off advertisements on the platform’s home screen. It’s amazing that a company that makes most of its money from data collection and advertising would even offer that choice (and it’s one that I entirely expect to disappear should Google ever reinvest in the Android TV platform).

Advertisements aside, Google has what it takes to take on Roku and Amazon, from a massive library of supported apps that surpasses Roku to a voice assistant that matches/surpasses (depending on who you ask) Alexa on Amazon Fire TVs. All it needs is a Google executive with a marketing strategy.

But as trends like cord-cutting continue to gain popularity, every day Google slips further and further behind its rivals. That, combined with the damaged reputation by poor products like the JBL Link Bar, make it an uphill battle for Google. The irony at this point is, barring any Pixel-like software exclusives, Google might never be able to beat out Nvidia at its own platform.

Filings with the FCC earlier this week indicate that Nvidia is ramping up a third-generation Nvidia Shield, likely extending its reign as the top Android TV device. Meanwhile, there has been next to nothing in terms of a consumer-level “Made by Google” Android TV product. That could potentially change. Developers earlier this year finally received the ADT-2 developer kits announced at Google I/O 2018, which are effectively Android TV dongles, and rumors suggest an ADT-3 kit could be out soon. These kits, however, are similar to the Nexus line of phones, in terms of being used almost solely for development and demos of the newest OS updates. Plus, these kits are available by invite only. As it stands now, however, there’s no sign that this device will ever turn into a full-blown Google-built consumer product. Instead, Nvidia will have to continue to keep Android TV’s sinking reputation afloat.

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