I remember the first time I used a Google Chromecast. I plugged the little dongle into the HDMI port on my TV and completed the setup, and I was instantly sold on the idea. The simplicity of the Chromecast was so refreshing to me in the world of clunky Roku and Fire TV interfaces. A simple changing wallpaper with the time and weather waiting for the next streaming service to be sent up from my phone, laptop, or tablet. I applauded the idea that the Chromecast did not require a remote or any sort of heavy navigation interface, that the phone as a device that we always have nearby would suffice as a remote. I have always applauded Google for going this route despite many people lamenting the lack of a remote. It would appear that even Google’s idealism has its limits as reports have surfaced suggesting a new Chromecast Ultra that is based on Android TV that will come with a remote. To me this is a sad development that is indicative of the direction of a company of course, but also a statement on us as a society.
Android TV is the Path Forward
On the surface, going through with the Android TV for delivering its television content services makes the most sense for Google. The platform has seen an increase in adoption rates with most modern Sony TV’s coming equipped with this platform to take on LG’s WebOS and Samsung’s Tizen. This includes built in cast capability and an inclusion of Google Assistant which is really the reason that the platform is so important to Google. On top of that, having all the apps and services that people will use in one place falls in line with what people have become accustomed to. For anyone switching from a Fire Stick/TV or any Roku device, this format is what is comfortable.
The pivot to Android TV for Google makes the most logical business sense. The company at this point sees Apple and Amazon as primary competition in the race to create the fully connected home. This means that having interoperability with all of Google’s services is crucial for a TV solution. So it is no surprise that pushing a solution that will highlight Google search, Assistant, and YouTube will be the path that Google would choose.
In the spirit of cultivating this ecosystem, the branding is something that is important to remember as well. By going the route of the Android name brand, a brand that Google has marketed consistently over the years, there is a recognition factor with consumers as opposed to the Chromecast name. Despite offering the 4K Chromecast Ultra since 2015, there is a low cost reputation for the Chromecast brand, as the $35 base model is the vision that comes to most people’s mind. Over the last few years, Google has started to distance itself from the Chromecast brand and this is further evidence of this, as was the company discontinuing the Chromecast Audio a couple of years ago.
There is an element of self boosting its own products in this shift to Android TV and a distancing from Chromecast. Google wants a way for its various hardware and software platforms to tie into its core services. One of these core services is Google Search, that allows delivery of ads that generates Google a good bulk of their revenue. Consider various Google platforms such as Android, Chrome OS, and Google Home smart speakers. All of these products have very deep integration with Google search. Chromecast has no such integration, it has always been designed as a simple gateway to push content from a device to a larger screen. So Google has taken that and implemented it into Android TV with cast functionality as a way to have that Chromecast experience with a deeper inclusion of Google Search, all of which helps the bottom line. But there is a deeper conversation to be had about us as a society and how the death of the traditional Chromecast experience is a consequence of habits.
An Aversion to Change
I mentioned earlier that there was a great feeling that I had when I first started using Chromecast. There was something that felt so futuristic about controlling content with a phone, that it was the future. All innovations always come with some level of growing pains, and the Chromecast has not been immune to this. There were always time out issues where controlling the app in question would require a reload of the app. This was especially problematic when binge watching something on Netflix, where the dreaded “Are you still watching” prompt pops up and this reloading of the app becomes more of a hassle than a convenience.
This particular scenario is where the traditional remote model makes a lot of sense. If this happened while using a Roku device, simply press the button in the middle of the remote and the problem is solved immediately. The fact that Google never did anything within Android to help solve this problem over the years is further indicative of the fact that we as people never wanted to change the way we do something as simple as watching TV.
The smartphone has been positioned as many things in the course of its life cycle. The product has rendered the need for many products obsolete for many people. No one owns MP3 players anymore as their phones can handle their music playing needs, many people use their phones as their main photography and computing device, and the smartphone has also replaced devices like calculators and alarm clocks for many people. It has truly become a toolbox innovation. Yet the line seems to stop with the television remote.
This one device is one that has been held onto, why is that? I tend to think that the reason for this is that of all the technology that we use on a daily basis, the television and remote setup is one that we pick up at a very young age and continue using all throughout adolescence and into adulthood. Compared to the other devices that the smartphone has replaced, this timetable is much longer and thus much more difficult to adjust to. Switching from using a remote to control a TV to using a smartphone to do this job, feels very foreign much like trying to write with your non-dominant hand. There is something that becomes embedded in us that when we are watching television, to instinctively reach for a remote.
This type of natural tendency has led us to ignore the benefits of using a smartphone or laptop as a potential replacement for the remote. First and foremost is the fact of one less thing to keep charged or buying batteries for. Remotes also have a funny way of getting lost rather frequently, yet most people know where their phone is at all times. Something that would have made a lot of sense as a potential solution to the timeout would have been a dedicated sidebar on Android and the web where content could be easily resumed so as not to interrupt the regular flow of everything else that is happening on the phone (similar to LG’s implementation of shortcuts on their smartphones in recent years).
However, this was never going to be the reality due to the fact that we as people will accept change as long as it is conducive to our narrative of being adaptable and accepting of change. What the Chromecast idea could have been is to usher in the media control center from any device and introduce a fully integrated voice solution that actually works instead of some of the half baked solutions that have infested many a smart TV. However the idea of a primarily voice controlled system is such a departure from what we as a media consuming public have grown accustomed to, that we instantly reject it.
In this sense, Chromecast was always doomed to fail and be replaced by something more traditional. The idea of such a simple interface that hooked into other devices was such a swift change from the all in one remote hub that we have all grown up on, it was never going to fully appeal to the masses. This is because while we as humans have a desire for something new and innovative we are also very much creatures of habit that enjoy a routine.
This is where our collective minds will ultimately clash. While we get bored of the same old thing, we yearn for something new but are afraid of a new learning curve. It is this hesitance to learn something new that keeps us in a cycle where we crave something new but with a level of familiarity to keep us comfortable. It is striking this balance that is so crucial to making any sort of new product accepted. Think of it this way, we have become accustomed to having vehicles with an even number of wheels. A car has 4 wheels, a motorcycle/bicycle has two, and semi trucks have 18. Then something like the Polaris Slingshot is released, a vehicle with (gasp) three wheels, that defies our notion of a proper transportation vehicle. It is no less capable of a means of transportation than a motorcycle or car, but it is different and that is why it has not had mainstream acceptance. In some ways, the traditional Chromecast experience was the three wheeled vehicle. And now seeing that the masses refuse to accept it, Google has decided to add a fourth wheel for everyone’s comfort, much to the dismay of people looking for better ways to experience their entertainment.