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Google is taking another stab at conquering the living room: The company officially unveiled its new streaming dongle, Chromecast with Google TV, Wednesday. The device, which retails for $49.99, combines Google's existing Chromecast tech with a redesigned Android TV interface that emphasizes content over apps, highlighting movies and TV shows from a variety of publishers directly on the home screen.
Many of the device's features were already known from a series of leaks, which included retailers selling the device ahead of its official Wednesday launch date, as well as an earlier Protocol report about its content-forward UI. More interesting than the hardware specs is what the device says about Google's ambitions for the living room and the evolution of the smart TV market.
The launch of the new streaming device comes a little over seven years after Google first introduced the original Chromecast streaming adapter. Shaped like a key and retailing for just $35, that first-generation Chromecast in many ways redefined the streaming device market. It paved the way for Roku and Amazon to also introduce inexpensive HDMI dongles, and it conditioned millions of users to think of their TV as a surface to watch content beamed from their phones, without any app galleries and menus on the TV screen.
The company sold "tens of millions" of Chromecast streaming adapters in the following years, Google Nest GM and VP Rishi Chandra recently told Protocol. However, Google also quickly hit a ceiling, with a significant number of consumers unwilling to give up on their remotes altogether. Case in point: A Chromecast-only generation of Vizio TVs flopped, forcing the company to change course and develop its own smart TV apps platform.
"We quickly realized: That was only one path," Chandra admitted. Google also invested in Android TV as an apps-based smart TV platform, and has since succeeded at licensing Android TV to seven of the 10 top-selling smart TV brands, as well as numerous pay TV operators across the globe.
The new Chromecast is in many ways an attempt to bring those two competing efforts together, and reenter the dongle market with a Google-made flagship device. "This is the biggest refresh of Chromecast in a while," said Chandra, who described the hardware release as "an opportunity to reset the market."
That type of reset is clearly aimed at Amazon and Roku, which have dominated the market for streaming devices in the U.S., with Amazon also being a formidable foe in Europe and other markets. Just last week, Amazon VP Marc Whitten announced that his company had sold more than 100 million Fire TV devices globally thus far. And while most TVs sold these days come with apps for Netflix, Disney+ and similar services built-in, there's still significant demand for external streaming adapters. "The dongle market actually continues to grow," Chandra said.
Still, for Google, that smart TV market is just as important, and the company's relationship with TV manufacturers hasn't always been smooth sailing. In private, industry insiders have expressed reservations about Google's renewed focus on its own hardware. The prospect of a Google-curated home screen that deemphasizes native apps has raised red flags with publishers, who could previously publish their own content recommendations directly to the Android TV home screen.
Android TV head Shalini Govil-Pai told Protocol that the new home screen experience, which the company calls "Google TV," is going to roll out to TV sets powered by Android TV next year. She said that the company was still working out details on how much TV makers will be able to customize the experience, including with content placements that may offer them additional revenue streams. "That's an ongoing discussion," she said. "In the end, the business models have to work for our partners."
Chandra described Google's decision to build its own streaming hardware as a way for the company to innovate faster, which could eventually also involve other devices and services. "It's a mistake to think of entertainment as only your TV," Chandra said, alluding to plans to integrate the new Chromecast more closely with other devices around the home. "It's a very different mindset of how we historically thought of this technology," he said.
Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.