Google Chromecast follows Apple TV in doing the living room right

Google Chromecast is a little stick that you put in your television to make it better. It might be a really good idea...
Written by Matt Baxter-Reynolds, Contributor
Chromecast loves TV
Awww. It's love, basically. That's what it is. Chromecast loves your TV. And your tablet. And your smartphone. And probably you too.

Amazon has the Google Chromecast listed as a "HDMI streaming media player", but it's way more than that.

It's a very clever little device that shows how to do the living room right.

Last month I wrote a piece called "How Apple does not care about your living room". The idea behind this piece is that all those companies that are desperately trying to push complex technology to modify the main television in the living room are rather missing the point.


The living room isn't as important as it once was. This isn't the 1960s where we all cluster round and spend all our time as a happy little nuclear family in one place.

The home is now a place where we consume content through mobile devices wherever we happen to be inside it. Increasingly, we're spending more time away from broadcast television, plus more time relating to others through social networking services. Sitting down and actually watching TV together is happening less.

In that context it makes far more sense to invent a little device that can somehow improve every television in the house in some way. Which is exactly what Chromecast is. Spend $35, somehow work out how to get power to it, somehow set it up, and your existing TV is a little bit improved.

I'm a big fan of Apple TV, not necessarily because it's any good (it's "just OK" implementation-wise), but because Apple has managed to invade living rooms in a totally stealthy way. There's nothing flashy or complex about Apple TV -- it's just a little box that lets you play content you buy from iTunes, or Netflix, and do some other things.

Like Chromecast, it's not clever or flashy. It's cheap, and it makes the television that it's connected to a little bit better. A small improvement.

Compare this to Xbox One, which is designed from the perspective of doing an "HDMI pass-through". In this arrangement, the Xbox One drives an existing cable TV box in order to get live content on the screen. Presuming people still watch live TV. Which they're increasing not preferring on-demand, pick-and-choose-whatever style consumption. Plus, the Xbox One experience will be forever irreparably broken by the fact that the last thing the cable TV companies want is Microsoft (or anyone) sitting in the middle of their channel reducing the amount of direct customer they have with their customers.

Xbox One is, classicly, overly engineered, and technologist-led. It's not a simple, cheap device that makes a television set a little bit better.


I subscribe to the school of thought that the post-PC devices that we are enjoying today are rooted in work done as part of the "ubiquitious computing" movement. Often shortened to "ubicomp", I've written about this before, as has my ZDNet colleague Simon Bisson: "Post-PC, or just the return of ubicomp".

The basic idea of ubicomp is that you have simple devices always around you that you use to easily access your "digital life". A smartphone is a good example of a ubicomp device. For example, you might be out with the kids, you'll take a photo of it and share it on Instagram. The thing that you're doing is playing with the kids. You access a ubicomp device (your smartphone) to take the photo and then share the photo on your social network.

The man who spearheaded the ubicomp movement, Mark Weiser, saw that ubicomp would have three types of devices. Specifically, "tabs", "pads", and "boards". Tabs are what we call smartphones. Pads are what we call tablets (or even "iPad"). Boards, however, are missing.

In ubicomp, the different devices are defined by their size. Tabs are supposed to be "wearable", pads are supposed to be "decimetre-scale", and boards are supposed to be "metre-scale". (Wearable in a ubicomp context applied to the reality of what the market has provided today really means "hyperportable" -- i.e. so small you take it with you everywhere.)

In domestic settings, we have metre-scale "things", and we happen to call them television sets. But they're not very smart. They just take a signal and translate it. Manufacturers have tried to make the TV smarter -- like Samsung with it's Smart TV app catalogue, although rarely people consume this smartness.

This is classic technologist thinking. People don't want apps that they can run on their TVs. It has to be a "little better", as opposed to being so different is actually gets in the way of doing what the TV is good at -- i.e. presenting content to people sitting in front of it.

What the Chromecast lets you do is take content from anywhere and "throw" it up onto any television set in the home. This simple little device could be what "disrupts" the normal television set and changes it into a ubicomp board.

That's a simple, cheap change. What it does is allow the user to take the smartphone and tablet that they already love, and get a better experience by being able to see it's content up on the big screen. Both of these devices are limited by the size of the screen.

That would then give us the full set -- tabs, pads, and boards, and seeing as post-PC and ubicomp are tied at the hip it changes the nature of the television set and turns it into a post-PC device.

So what?

What the Chromecast does, and devices that will follow it will do, is extend out the world that we love of smartphones and tablets, not require us to change the way in which we use them, and then improves the experience. This $35 piece of kit changes that dynamic, but within the sphere of being in a post-PC world. This is all done in an gentle, organic way.

That approach always seems to play better in the post-PC world. Deep, technology-led thinking and complex products driven by technologists tend not to do well out there. (Surface RT, for example).

Simple, easy to grasp ideas that nudge the story gently on seem to do much better. Apple TV is like that, for example.

So will Chromecast be a big thing? I don't know. But I can see how it might augur a new device category that ushers in some very positive changes.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

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