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Google Takes Big Leap Into Streaming Media

THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE DOT.COMMENTARY

$35 Chromecast links Web content from computers, smartphones to TV

Even after a series of leaks, Google kept one trick up its sleeve for its Wednesday morning news conference: The Mountain View search giant announced a surprisingly slick new device that potentially represents a game changer in the streaming media marketplace.

The Chromecast is inexpensive, works with an array of devices and - most critically, for my money - allows any Web content to be broadcast over your television.

Competing services such as Roku provide viewers limited options, such as YouTube, Netflix and Hulu.

In similar fashion, the Chromecast works with a set lineup of custom apps, including YouTube, Netflix, Google Play and soon Pandora. But it has a beta feature that allows users to cast content directly from any open tab in the Chrome Web browser.

That means users can watch or display just about any online content on their TV, including from services that compete against Google's offerings, such as Vimeo, Flickr, Dailymotion or Metacafe.

You can pull off a similar trick with recent versions of Apple TV, if you have an Apple computer from 2011 or later running OS X Mountain Lion. It's known as AirPlay Mirroring.

"It's an important feature," said Mario Queiroz, vice president of product management at Google, in an interview. "We expect there will be a growing number of apps for Chromecast, but there is a lot of other content out there."

"We wanted to make sure to give you a lot of options," he added. "This provides the ability to bring great online content to your TV."

The other big advantage is that the Chromecast retails at $35. Apple TV runs $99, while Rokus range from $50 to $100.

Chromecast is available from Amazon.com, BestBuy.com and Google Play. It will go on sale at Best Buy stores in the coming days.

Home network

The thumb drive-size device plugs straight into an HDMI input on your television and connects online via your home Wi-Fi network.

Taking advantage of the tab viewing feature requires downloading a Chrome extension, which should soon be available from the Chrome Web store.

Your smartphone, tablet or computer becomes the remote control via the apps or extension. Critically, that will include Android, Chrome, Windows or Apple devices. Moreover, anyone connected to the network, be it your buddy or your spouse, can add to the viewing queue or switch to a different show - though that's a feature one can imagine causing some domestic friction on occasion.

Analysts mostly seemed enthusiastic about the device's odds of success.

"Chromecast can be very disruptive, assuming that consumers know about it," Forrester Research analyst Sarah Rotman Epps said. "It will cut into potential sales of game consoles and over-the-top set-top boxes, because one of the main drivers of buying those is to stream Netflix. Now you can do that with a $35
plug-in dongle."

Dan Rayburn, principal analyst with Frost & Sullivan in New York, agreed that the device will sell well. But he stressed that Chromecast is not quite in the same category as the full-powered streaming media devices that work on their own straight out of the box. Rather it relies on that secondary device, a phone, tablet or computer, to do the selecting and streaming.

It remains to be seen how well that works in the wild across various devices.

But Rotman Epps said the real genius - and ultimate plan - here is that the service will encourage more users to install Google's Chrome browser and apps on their phones, tablets and computers. Chrome users tend to use far more of Google's services, ultimately providing the company more advertising revenue.

Data collection

That could happen in a more direct way as well. There is at least the potential that using Chromecast will feed additional data to Google about your viewing habits that can be used to further tailor ads to users. As always with Google, that could raise privacy issues.

Downloading the Google Cast extension warns users that it can access your data on all websites, as well as your tabs and browsing activity.

"Depending how they use that data, it's problematic," said John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog.

Google has made other forays into this field, notably producing Google TV devices that have yet to really take off, and the Nexus Q that never even made it to market. But at least on first impression, the Chromecast seems like a far more thoughtful and competitive approach.

"It's a really elegant solution for what has been a difficult problem," Rotman Epps said.

"It's an important feature. We expect there will be a growing number of apps for Chromecast, but there is a lot of other content out there."

Mario Queiroz, vice president of product management at Google, on Chromecast streaming