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Typical! Google's wonder-dongle is a solution looking for a problem

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Analysis From the reaction to Google's latest contribution to TV technology, you'd think the Chromecast dongle was as revolutionary as a new method of nuclear fusion.

While the wee $35 USB stick is more practical than the last Google TV gadget - and hopefully less catastrophic to Google's supply chain partners - it's a typically Silicon Valley way of going about things: a solution looking for a problem. This even has a name nowadays: solutionism.

British telly broadcaster BSkyB touts an even cheaper TV dongle (£9.99, $15), but it received a fraction of the coverage even though it may have a greater impact on its intended market. Why?

What Silicon Valley perpetually forgets is that every TV is fundamentally a dongle to begin with. It stands between between us and the broadcasts we want to watch. For the most popular drama or sport - the most popular two categories of telly "stuff" - some kind of access device is required. In the earliest days some TVs were even bundled with a service, as were the first telephones.

The real industry power lies with the owners of the rights to Breaking Bad or Premier League footie, a global phenomenon that absorbs every country in the planet. We're probably in a golden age of TV and even NetFlix has "pivoted" to creating its own original material and releasing it exclusively. Content remains king, the demand that pulls technology industries along behind it. So let's be more precise and think of a TV as "an access dongle", the termination point of broadcast technology.

There's another kind of dongle, a secondary category, that extends the ways in which you can watch: typically this offers the ability to watch a programme later (time-shifting) or on another device over Wi-Fi (place-shifting). This secondary dongle is a convenience gadget, but it remains utterly dependent upon being authenticated in the first place: there will be a primary dongle, somewhere.

Some services provide time and place shifting at the server (Virgin Catch Up TV, for example) while others like TiVO or Sky+ do so through this kind of secondary dongle. Apple TV's is also a dongle - but it's little more than a DRM enforcer, similar to a set-top box smart card or the USB-eLicenser you need to plug into the back of your PC to run Cubase (a hardware copy-protection approach that was much more common in the 1980s). Hollywood doesn't trust its most valuable material to run unencrypted over networks, so Apple produces a box to decrypt that video. Amazingly, people even buy it.

The mistake pundits made last week was assuming that the secondary category of dongle does away with the need of the first, which has a flavour of Underpants Gnome logic about it:

  1. Release dongle
  2. ???
  3. Own the TV industry!

But we all know what step two entails - creating or licensing stuff people want to watch.

Google simply doesn't have the material today that drives any significant demand. Matched up against Major League Baseball, the English Premier League and Breaking Bad, for example, is the same familiar YouTube stuff: novelty and niche. The sorta stuff that could be aggregated and slotted into one of the high hundred channel numbers on a cable service.

Chromecast is a secondary order dongle and no matter how cheap these are, these have a very limited appeal. The first Google TV devices failed to address this problem, so Google went out and failed to address it all over again. Only cheaper.

So Chromecast is left with a minor and useful function: pumping material acquired on a handheld device, such as a smartphone or a tablet, onto a TV screen. For those few homes without a laptop next to the TV, and there aren't many left, or for users unwilling to perform the highly technical manoeuvre of "plugging in an HDMI cable" then yes, there's a convenience factor. But dongles such as this have been washing around for a similar price point for years.

Now contrast what BSkyB has done - for it too has a new dongle. The company is all about making money from the rights to programmes and other material, and it doesn't really care how you consume its stuff as long as you're paying. The combination of a satellite dish and conditional access box can be pretty expensive, and while it's been hugely successful for Sky, the broadcaster acknowledges that many people don't want to make such a hefty investment or commitment.

So to fend off so-called over-the-top players (which piggyback Sky's internet broadband to offer their own TV entertainment) it's become one itself: the NOW TV dongle can be used with day passes to BSkyB material. The gadget costs just less than a tenner and it's similar to Apple TV or Roku in terms of specifications: Wi-Fi, HDMI and A/V ports and a bundled remote. All will offer over-the-top services such as Netflix or iPlayer. No doubt mobile apps for the NOW TV box will follow. The key difference isn't one of price - it's that Google is offering you sneezing panda clips and Gangnam Style reenactments, while Sky is offering The Ashes cricket glory.

Silicon Valley loves to talk about "disruption" but from Google's TV efforts we must conclude that the only industry it's seriously disrupting is now itself - in the traditional sense of the word "disruption". As in: "I've disrupted my feet by shooting them, again." How long can Google bark madly up the wrong tree? The clue lies in the name Google used to submit Chromecast for regulatory approval: H2G2-42.

Hilarious, no? Google could license or create its own stuff, but it isn't. Until it does, no dongle will make it an industry power. ®

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