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Google Inc Needs to Tread Lightly With Its Chromecast

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Google nixed a key feature in third party apps for the Chromecast while hinting at future support. But users are still worried.

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It's been a little over a month since Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) debuted its instantly popular Chromecast device. At $35, the two-inch HDMI dongle has already become one of the most talked-about and sought-after media devices, buoyed by an incredibly easy setup, broad compatibility between devices, a dead-simple interface, and a free three-month membership to Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) -- which comes and goes depending on Best Buy's (NYSE:BBY) supply.

Although the feature-light Chromecast has been unfavorably compared by some to the more versatile Apple TV (NASDAQ:AAPL), Roku, and the upcoming Xbox One (NASDAQ:MSFT), its price makes it a very attractive product, and early indications point to increased capabilities and support down the line. Already tackling video streams from Netflix, YouTube, and the Google Play Store, Chromecast has earned the attention of companies like Pandora (NASDAQ:P), HBO GO (NYSE:TWX), Redbox (NASDAQ:OUTR), Hulu, Vevo, Vimeo, Songza, TWit.TV, and Plex, all of which have expressed interest in being in the Chromecast business.

But as developers continue to tinker with an early version of the software developers kit, Google released a patch this weekend that broke third party support for a favorable yet unadvertised feature: local media streaming.

Developer Koushik Dutta, who also created the popular ROM Manager and ClockworkMod Recovery for Android, designed an app called AirCast which allowed Chromecast users to beam videos stored on their Android devices, Dropbox, or Google Drive accounts directly to their TV. Dutta accomplished this by reverse engineering the Chromecast code, effectively exploiting a hole that enabled local file streaming.

Google went ahead and closed that hole.

After all his work was shot, Dutta was understandably peeved at the move. "The policy seems to be a heavy handed approach, where only approved content will be played through the device." Adding, "The Chromecast will probably not be indie developer friendly."

But it's not like Chromecast isn't able to stream local media. Early in its release, users found that if they opened video files in the Google Chrome browser and shared that tab to the device, they were able to essentially beam their files to the TV. The quality wasn't as clean as a Netflix or YouTube stream and there was a noticeable lag, but it was an acceptable workaround for what many consider to be an essential feature. Fortunately, Google's recent patch left this specific workaround intact.

However, Dutta raises an interesting point: How open will Chromecast be? Will local media continue to be a sticking point going forward?

Soon after users pitched a fit at the lost feature, a Google spokesperson released a statement that hints at future local media support from third party apps. It reads:
We're excited to bring more content to Chromecast and would like to support all types of apps, including those for local content. It's still early days for the Google Cast SDK, which we just released in developer preview for early development and testing only. We expect that the SDK will continue to change before we launch out of developer preview, and want to provide a great experience for users and developers before making the SDK and additional apps more broadly available.

At face value, it's a reassuring position, until you notice the phrase "would like to support," leaving the possibility of, "Oh, we'd like to support local content, but those lucrative deals with Netflix and Hulu prevent us to." There's no real firm stance expressed either way.

Chromecast debuted without any official mention of local content support and still managed to draw fervent interest from consumers. But many users assumed apps like AirCast were not only possible but also likely. So when the AirCast debuted and worked really well, it appeared to fall in line with Chromecast's natural progression.

But now, users aren't so sure what the future holds for Chromecast. To see AirCast's support broken with a patch, albeit during an early developer stage, is disconcerting. It foretells the possibility of a rocky relationship between Google, third party developers, and users who demand an "open" device. What once was a wonder device with endless possibility now looks like it could be another product hampered by the contractual obligations to multibillion-dollar conglomerates.

Of course, this can all be a matter of early-release quirks and will soon be sorted out once the SDK is finalized. But in the meantime, Google needs to realize that the enthusiasm expressed toward the Chromecast was one of possibility, not limitation.

Knowing that, Google should tread lightly with the Chromecast.

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