Google TV Preps for its European Debut

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It's not often that a product launches in the U.S., meets nominal success, and then takes years to cross the Atlantic to Europe. Yet it appears that Google's flagship living room entertainment device -- Google TV -- is following just that path, even when one of the leading first-generation Google TV products was developed by a Swiss company.

Google announced last week, as part of the Google I/O developer conference, that Japan-based Sony will bring a model of its Google TV set-top box (Sony NSZ-GS7) to Europe, with pre-orders underway now and general availability on July 22, 2012. 

Why did it take so long for Google TV to appear in Europe, especially given Europe's love affair with the Android mobile phone operating system on which Google TV 2.0 is based? When the iPhone first appeared, it crossed the Atlantic in less than a year's time, was met with wild success, and is now firmly entrenched. 

It appears the reason for the delay has been two-fold:

First, Logitech, based in Switzerland, came out with the Logitech Revue, a Google TV device that did not fully implement the Google TV 1.0 specification -- it lacked MPEG-2 codec support, for instance -- and then halted production in late 2010 until Google revamped the set-top box operating system.

Even when Google announced the Google TV 2.0 specification, though, Logitech failed to fully implement the new specs, generating confusion and prompting a number of U.S.-based Revue customers to return the unit. Logitech's CEO then famously declared Google TV to be "beta" software, and the company ceased production of the Revue in late 2011 -- just before the Christmas shopping season -- in some cases slashing the prices to $99 for a new Revue and $79 for a refurbished Revue.

With the only European-based Google TV manufacturer out of the mix, and Sony seeing limited traction for its Google TV integrated units (that integrated the Google TV technology directly in to several flat-panel monitors), it appeared that Google TV would never make it in to the European market.

That changed at this year's 2012 Consumer Electronics Show, held in Las Vegas, Nevada, in January. At that time, Sony announced two new stand-alone set-top box models, replacing its sole Blu Ray-enabled Google TV set-top box with a smaller form factor akin to the Logitech Revue.

With that hardware commitment in place, and several other Japanese and Asian companies expressing interest in building their own Google TV set-top boxes, Google needed to move to the second phase: content.

Testing several Google TV set-top boxes over the years, including the first-generation Logitech and Sony units, we found the biggest inhibitor to frequent use was content accessibility. This took two forms -- user interface issues and general content availability -- that proved difficult for Google to solve.

Google TV 2.0, accompanied by a tried-and-true handheld remote by Sony, solved the first issue. While the Logitech Revue's traditional wireless keyboard and trackpad seemed to make the most sense initially, use of the Sony single-hand "gaming console" remote speeds up access to applications on the Google TV's main and secondary screens, without the feeling that one needs to program the device just to watch a simple home movie or YouTube video.

The second problem, access to general content, can be solved several ways. In testing, we made bit-for-bit digital back-up copies of our DVD and Blu Ray discs, storing them in a container format (MKV) that allows Sony's full Google TV 2.0 implementation to access the content from a DLNA-compliant network drive. 

That solves the problem of being able to watch hundreds of DVDs, assuming that Sony doesn't step backwards and remove MPEG-2 support in its second-generation Google TV devices. We'll know for certain on July 22.

The Google TV 2.0 specification made it much easier to access YouTube, Netflix, and a variety of U.S.-based entertainment options. But Google still lacks the ability to add localized content in a variety of European countries.

Based on what Google announced at Google I/O, it's clear that it's moved ahead and provided localized access to content in the U.K., France, Germany, and a number of other European countries. 

While we've yet to see the iPlayer on Google TV -- and it's uncertain whether LoveFilm will dominate Google TV in Europe the way that Netflix drives Google TV growth in the US -- the move toward easy, localized content access via the Sony Google TV-powered set-top box is a step in the right direction.

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