​Where Android TV goes next

Here's the plan: Better search, better Google Assistant

​Where Android TV goes next
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Google pervades so much of our homes, yet Android TV has struggled to find its place in our living rooms. Google’s smart TV platform boasts broad support – 5,000 apps and over 500,000 movies and shows, the company tells us – but it's Apple, Roku and Amazon that have top billing in the streaming wars right now.

Guide: What is Google TV

But the good news is this: Google is working on it. This is a company that loves data, and it just commissioned a survey by YouGov to dig deeper on how people are using their TVs, and how Google can do more to compete for our eyeballs.

When we met with the Android TV team in Mountain View, instead of using its findings for the self-congratulatory pie-chart-waving ritual we're used to getting at product briefings, it was instead used as a jumping-off point to demonstrate how Google, by its own admission, was failing users – and to set the path for where it goes next.

Read this: The best smart TV platforms

What was clear only moments into our meeting was that there are no major updates happening with Android TV – sorry! – but it gave us the perfect opportunity to ask the question that’s been bugging us for a long time: what the hell is happening with Android TV?

Where Android TV goes next

Much of the research, which surveyed a little over 2,000 people, unearthed the sorts of findings you'd expect. People feel like they spend too long searching for things to watch (on average 11 minutes when they don’t know what they want to watch; 4 minutes when they do). They lose track of their subscriptions. They still prefer watching longer-form content on their televisions, shorter on phones and tablets.

Search is perhaps the biggest headache, and it’s where Google – the company that built its foundations on the word – knows it can do better when it comes to the TV. With so many apps and services, and only more to come as HBO, Apple and others break apart their own services, TV has never had more selection – and that's the problem.

The Android TV team is working on something it’s internally calling Universal Media Search, a wide-reaching tool that gives search full visibility across the entire library of apps and services on the platform including searches for genres, directors etc – with better accuracy and depth than what Android TV offers today.

“Android TV is going to lean into the search and discovery experience – and we are search," said Shalini Govil-pai, head of Android TV. "How do we make sure users can get to the content, whether it’s through assistant or through discovery? That’s number one for us."

Google Assistant is in many ways the smartest voice assistant available today, largely thanks to being plugged into the Google brain, but it doesn't feel like Google is utilizing it to the best of its abilities on the TV.

Android TV is going to lean into the search and discovery experience

“We’ve had universal search for a long time on websites, and we’re now using that to think about media searches, and we’re calling it Universal Media Search," added Cory O'Connor, product lead for Android TV. "If we have a catalogue of information across all apps, then we should be able to surface up when a user searches for funny action movies. We should be able to pull up which apps have it, and then if you're entitled to it through Netflix, we just go quickly to that app."

This oversight extends to billing too. Google’s survey found that 40% of people were concerned with the expense of multiple bills, a statistic we'd consider ourselves part of.

“The transparency we can provide, like here are all your subscriptions, and the ability to go in very quickly and cancel if you don’t want, or subscribe if you want, that is what we are leaning into,” said Govil-pai.

A more interesting finding from was that a high number of people are still using both cable and streaming services, with 32% of users splitting their viewing across both. “This is the phenomenon that we’re seeing: people are not cutting the cord fully,” says Govil-pa. “They’re watching cable, but they also have a few additional streaming services. That’s becoming the more dominant use case from our data.”

This is in part down to how cable and broadband are often bundled together, which is often more cost-effective than streaming alone. It also may be helped by how cable companies have responded to the proliferation of streaming by improving their set-top boxes, integrating better TV guides and even voice search features.

”I think those are the economics that are still being figured out,” said O'Connor. "We don’t have an answer for it yet. That’s what needs to really shift for this landscape to completely shift to streaming.”

Where Android TV goes next

Google needs a hero

But maybe Android TV’s bigger problem right now is price. Well, price and confusion. The strategy to date has been about partnering with TV makers like Sony and Bravia to build Android TV on their sets, otherwise there are a couple of boxes you can plug into your TV and run Android TV that way instead. But Google's TV champion has always been Chromecast, the tiny dongle that lets you stream content from a phone or tablet onto your television.

Could Google offer an inexpensive Android TV dongle of its own? Roku just announced a $29 device that connects to a TV using USB and HDMI. Meanwhile Amazon and Apple have their own branded TV hardware, so does Google see the need for one of its own?

People are not cutting the cord fully

“It’s not quite clear that we do,” said Govil-pai, pointing me to the Nvidia Shield, which Google sees as filling that "hero" role right now. With rumblings that a new Android TV hero box is coming next year, we’d put money on that being just another Shield. But an Android TV box – a Pixel for the TV, if you like – might help shift the perception of Android TV (the Xiaomi Mi Box is a close second-favorite pick after the Nvidia Shield, but beyond that it becomes a confusing nightmare).

And what about more in gaming?

“It’s TBD,” said Govil-pai. “We’re looking into it. It’s definitely expressed as an interest area. We’d probably start with more family-style games. The assistant can already do trivia based games - those are the ones we’d probably lean into initially.”

With Google’s cloud-powered Stadia gaming service launching next year, integrating that with Android TV makes more sense, and all signs suggest it’s happening. Sadly, Google won’t tell us if that’s on the roadmap.

The thoughtful home

After search, the other thing Google wants and needs to improve is how Android TV works in the smart home, an area where the company is currently excelling by other measures.

"Users are starting to think about the thoughtful home and how can TV really power that up?,” said Govil-pai. “I’m watching TV, can I dim the lights and have a theater mode? Or can I check the camera to see what my baby is up to?”

A perfect example of how this experience should be great, but is massively broken, is Nest.

If we’re using the Chromecast, we can ask Google Assistant to show our Nest camera feed on the TV. Meanwhile, on Android TV, Assistant doesn’t work and, in fact, since Google and Nest migrated the Android TV app is... completely broken.

It’s a mess, but hopefully this will change in time, as Google brings Nest into the mothership. Google also says it’s bringing routines, a feature that already works with its smart speakers, over to Android TV.

But the team is also thinking beyond copying and pasting the Assistant's abilities onto the TV, and on the nuances in how Google Assistant should work on a TV compared to, say, a smart speaker in your living room.

Ask it to play “Rolling Stones” on a Google Home speaker and you’d hope it would play, well, The Rolling Stones. But ask it to do the same on Android TV and you’re probably thinking of a Rolling Stones documentary. Assistant needs to know the difference, and it’s something the Android TV team say they’re working on.

"What a user expects when they say 'Cold War' on TV may be different on a Google Home speaker, because on the TV you're probably looking for the show.

"Those are the sorts of nuances we need to arbitrate between services."

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