The small streaming dongle has turned five. Over the course of this period, Google has introduced three models and matured the product but does Chromecast represent the future of TV?
The story of Chromecast
To celebrate its “first and most popular consumer hardware device”, Google has shared the backstory of Google employee Majd Bakar and his wife Carla Hindie.
- “This is back around 2008 or so. Carla was always looking for new stuff to watch, and I noticed how she went about starting a movie. She would go to her laptop to pick a movie using a streaming service, add it to her queue, and then close the laptop. Then, she’d open the movie on her gaming device. I used to watch her and think, “This is really hard ... Why do you do that?”” said Majd Bakar.
Of course, this was a very different time for TV. Netflix had just launched its streaming service a year prior.
- “Basically, back then TV interfaces were hard to use. The search was difficult and very slow,” Carla said.
Majd Bakar joined Google in 2011 and started working on the concept in 2012. The first Chromecast dongle was launched in July 2013.
- “When we started, we were three people, and now we have hundreds of people working on Chromecast and other hardware products for the home. That is a huge effort. We, as a team, made an impact in this space,” Majd added.
The real story of Chromecast
Chromecast has become a big success for Google. In October 2017, the company announced that a total of 55 million units had been sold across Chromecast, Chromecast 2, and the 4K HDR-enabled Chromecast Ultra.
Of course, the concept of casting video from a handheld device onto a TV screen was not new but Google arguable made it easier. Before Chromecast in 2013, Apple had launched a similar video casting system in 2010 with Airplay, and before that AirTunes for music in 2004.
Before Chromecast, there was also the ill-fated Nexus Q that never made it to market despite a big unveiling at Google I/O in 2012. A few of the concepts of Nexus Q eventually made it to Chromecast. However, the foundation for Chromecast was a protocol named DIAL (Discovery and Launch) co-developed by Netflix and YouTube (who is owned by Google). It was supposed to be an open alternative to Apple’s Airplay and it continues to be integrated in some Smart TVs and game consoles.
Netflix proudly demonstrated DIAL to the public at CES in January 2013 where it spoke about the potential of an open alternative to Apple’s proprietary Airplay. Work on DIAL has since been dialed down to a complete standstill, in part because Google wanted to make it a product that it could sell as a hardware dongle. Some may find it ironic that what started as an open alternative to a proprietary protocol eventually ended up being the latter.
Is Chromecast the future of TV?
Chromecast has in many ways matured over the course of its five years. The latest version supports 4K and High Dynamic Range, which is remarkable given its small footprint. It has also gained lots of functionality and wide support from streaming services. On the other hand it is still has serious flaws including a very problematic approach to video frame rates. The software version integrated into Android TVs is a mess.
But the real question is probably: Is Chromecast the future of TV? Data from analyst company Conviva shows that Chromecast usage grew only moderately from Q1 2017 to Q1 2018. Last year, it was more popular, or as popular, as Apple TV, Fire TV, and Xbox. In 2018, usage of all of those other devices has significantly raced past Chromecast.
Chromecast has undeniably been very popular. The simple concept in an affordable product has allowed many people to turn their old “dumb” TV screen into a connected set. However, it occurs to us that the vision of turning a smartphone or tablet into a control hub for the TV represents the past and not the future. We would be sad to see our TV reduced to a simple screen rather than getting a full user interface with rich graphic content, games, advanced features, and more.
Luckily, Google has grander ambitions with Android TV.