"'I'd like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use,' he told me. 'It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud.' No longer would users have to fiddle with complex remotes for DVD players and cable channels. 'It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.'"
This is an excerpt from Walter Isaacson's biography of Apple
(NASDAQ:AAPL) co-founder Steve Jobs. In it, Jobs makes the briefest of mentions to the mythical television set that has been rumored to be on the precipice of release for years now. And giving it the stratospheric hype that only the CEO of Apple could give, Jobs claims he's "cracked" the code to an unbelievably simple way in which users can operate an integrated TV.
However, it would seem that Google
(NASDAQ:GOOG) has now cracked that code before Cupertino could make good on that promise.
Last week, Google unveiled three products in a press event that was much more low-key than its annual I/O conference. It debuted Android 4.3, the new Nexus 7 tablet, and an odd little device called Chromecast. And of the three products, the most unassuming garnered the biggest reaction.
Chromecast is a small, two-inch dongle that can be plugged into the HDMI port on an high-definition television (HDTV) and stream YouTube and Netflix
(NASDAQ:NFLX) content directly to the set. Users can also mirror websites, images, and video displayed in their Chrome Web browsers onto the screen with a simple extension. The Chromecast has no dedicated remote control and is instead controlled by any number of Android, iOS, Mac, or PC devices on the same Wi-Fi network.
But arguably, the best feature is its price: $35.
People went nuts for the Chromecast. The device sold out almost immediately, buoyed by a limited-time offer of three free months of Netflix, which effectively dropped the price of the Chromecast to $11. Although the extremely feature-light dongle didn't have much in the way of whiz-bang specs, its simplicity, operability, and rock-bottom price point proved to be all that was needed to whip customers into a frenzy.
And not a moment too soon.
The media center arena has been in desperate need of a device to shake up the industry as it languishes in a holding pattern with unexciting product lines and woefully safe features. Apple TV and Roku boxes have been the lowly kings of the anthill and, despite delivering solid performances, they feel wholly lackluster in a field that should have killed off cable subscriptions long ago. Even the latest rumor of the elusive Apple television set -- that it will automatically delete commercials from a live recording
-- seems boring and antiquated for an industry that already has commercial-free programming in the way of Netflix, iTunes, and Google Play store.
And the less said about the botched handling of Google TV, the better. Although I've called the Boxee Box the most frustratingly broken and bug-ridden device
I've ever had the displeasure to own, Google TV doesn't fare much better as a media device, and customers who bought into that service deserve a product that delivers on its promise as soon as it's plugged into a TV.
So imagine the surprise of users and analysts to see Google deliver a media device that not only made good on its promise of simplicity and function, but also generated frothing excitement to boot. Very few, if any, pieces of Google hardware have sparked such an immediate and red-level response from users. Seemingly, not even Google expected the demand to be as high as it was, judging from its hasty and unfortunate cancellation of free Netflix service for customers who purchased the Chromecast after its first day of sale.
But the demand isn't only good for Google, it's good for the industry. Although Chromecast debuted with limited content partnerships, the unforeseen flurry of excitement has drummed up interest from a bevy of companies, greatly expanding the short list of future partners that Google mentioned during the event. Already, Pandora
(NASDAQ:P), HBO GO
(NASDAQ:OUTR), Hulu, Vevo, Vimeo, Songza, TWit.TV, and Plex have each hinted at or outright expressed forthcoming support.
This partnership scramble stands in stark contrast to the difficulty and very public frustration both Google and Apple had when finagling deals with content producers during their respective device launches. And while the companies originally had to sort out messy business like live broadcast integration and profit sharing to get their products off the ground, Chromecast eschews most of those headaches and just streams existing services outside the box, so to speak, while being controlled by other devices.
And therein lies the code-cracking.
When Steve Jobs spoke of the "simplest user interface you could imagine," he might have been referring to the very same UI that Google delivered for Chromecast. As mentioned before, the product comes with no dedicated remote control and connects to the many devices one normally has by their side when watching TV. In fact, any device on the Wi-Fi network can operate the Chromecast, which makes party viewing far more enjoyable than passing remotes or huddling around a laptop. What could be simpler?
The Chromecast isn't the most feature-laden device in the field, but it's one of the most user-friendly, celebrated, and -- most importantly -- cheapest. As it stands, the product is well worth its price and, if demand and future partnerships are any indication, it's promised to only get better.
It's still up in the air if Apple will deliver an actual television set that "cracks" the code in the way Jobs had in mind. But if there was one code that needed
to be cracked, it was to how to finally inject excitement into the media center industry.
And Google beat Apple to the punch.
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