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Google Chromecast: Here's why it's the most important smart TV tech ever

Netflix, YouTube are just the tip of the iceberg

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Analysis The more details that emerge about Chromecast, Google's new streaming media dongle, the more it sounds like you get what you pay for – and let's face it, $35 isn't a lot. But don't be fooled. There's more to Chromecast than meets the eye.

When the hardware hackers at iFixit did their teardown of the device, their conclusion was that it was "essentially a luxury item with limited use." And in my own review of Chromecast on Thursday, I was able to stream audio and video from Google Play, Netflix, and YouTube, and little else. In short, it couldn't do much that my existing gear couldn't do already.

But that's today. What about tomorrow – or a year from tomorrow?

A closer look at the inner workings of Chromecast reveals that it's a technology with impressive potential. In fact, if Google succeeds in building an ecosystem around it, it could prove to be one of the most important smart TV technologies to come along so far.

It's essential to understand that when you buy Chromecast, you're not just getting a dongle that can "do YouTube." That's what sets it apart from most of the other smart TVs, set-top boxes, Blu-Ray players, and other devices that can already stream YouTube content.

In fact, unlike a Blu-Ray player that comes with a YouTube app baked into its firmware, Chromecast can't really stream YouTube at all – not on its lonesome. It's really just a receiver. To stream content, it relies on a "sender" app running on an Android or iOS device or in the Chrome browser. Both halves together make the whole.

How important is the sender app? Consider the Google Cast SDK documentation, which explains, "Given the nature of the interaction model, tabs, windows or popups cannot be created, and there should be nothing on the receiver device screen requiring input. All interaction with the application must be done through a sender application."

With Chromecast streaming, you never see any buttons or input boxes or menus on your TV screen. All of that user interaction takes place on the sender device. Thus, the UI you use to find and display content on your TV is the exact same UI you use to find and display that content on your Android or iOS device or in your browser. The only difference is that when you press the Cast button, the content comes up on your TV.

But the Chromecast dongle isn't just mirroring what you see on your sender device's screen. While you're viewing the content on your TV, you're free to use your fondleslab to browse the web, send emails, play games, or even dim the screen and set it aside; the content keeps playing on your TV.

It does so because you're not streaming content from your tablet to your TV. What the sender app sends is just a command that tells Chromecast to grab the content stream and render it itself, via a custom receiver application that's loaded and run on the Chromecast dongle. Netflix content is streamed to a Netflix receiver app running on the dongle, YouTube content streams to a YouTube receiver app, and so on.

The dongle itself is running an embedded version of Chrome OS, and Chromecast receiver apps are all web apps. Therefore, any content that can be rendered in a browser using HTML5 and Google's supported media types and DRM technologies should also be supportable with a Chromecast receiver app. (Despite being based on Chrome, Google's Native Client technology is not supported on Chromecast at this time.)

All of this is significant for a number of reasons. First, it means Chromecast is flexible. The word "platform" is thrown around too lightly these days, but Chromecast is certainly closer to being a media platform than most of the dedicated media player devices on the market today.

Unlike a Blu-Ray player, Chromecast streaming is not limited to the specific set of apps that come preinstalled when you buy the dongle. Instead, it can support a nearly infinite number of streaming sources, and you don't need a firmware upgrade to add new ones: just download the app to your Android or iOS device. When you press the Cast button, Chromecast automatically loads and launches the appropriate receiver app.

Equally important, independent developers don't need to wait around for the Chocolate Factory to support their services. They can add Chromecast support to their apps and media services themselves. In effect, the number of streaming media sources Chromecast can support is limited only by developers' willingness to adopt the technology.

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