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Clearly, Google was motivated to acquire Motorola Mobility in part to bolster its mobile business. But Android is a runaway success, and it is not necessarily where Google needs the most help. In fact TV is still the final frontier for Google — and where it has stumbled most. And that’s why Motorola’s underplayed set-top-box business may give Google the help it needs to crack the $70 billion TV ad market. That is, if Google can do anything with it.
To date, Google’s two biggest plays in television, Google TV Ads and the hardware product Google TV are flailing. Google TV Ads suffer from a lack of inventory (it sells limited dayparts for satellite companies DirecTV and Dish) and a lack of interest among top TV brands and agencies, instead relying on long-tail players unused to TV advertising. Meanwhile Google TV, the set-top product the company released last fall with Logitech, was dead on arrival. It’s done so poorly that Google’s hardware partner, Logitech, said it was having so many problems selling them that it recorded “negative sales” — more people are bringing them back than taking them home.
Motorola’s set-top business, the largest in the industry, can help breathe life into both projects. And yet, Motorola doesn’t solve Google’s cable problem.
At first glance, the Motorola set-top box business would appear a perfect data Trojan Horse. Google is, after all, a massive data company. Its earlier efforts in traditional advertising — newspapers and magazines — failed in large part because Google couldn’t acquire a signal to tune its ads. The problem is set-top-box manufacturers don’t own all that viewership and household data that advertisers would love to get their hands on. The cable companies do. So Google, if it wants to become some kind of TV data-exchange company or simply wants to better its own TV ads product, it would still need to cut deals with the Comcasts of the world to get that data.
“And nobody hates Google more than [Comcast CEO] Brian Roberts,” said one observer with first hand knowledge of Google’s TV ventures. “The big players in the industry don’t want to help new threatening entrants.”
But smaller cable companies might be OK working with Google. Dave Morgan, CEO of Simulmedia, suggested that Google, given its history, might see an opportunity to put its Android software onto all new Motorola set-top boxes, which it could then give away for free to smaller regional cable companies. “Yes, this deal is about defending mobile patents,” Morgan said. “But video is a significant part of it.”
Indeed, many see the Motorola purchase, assuming it goes through, as a way for Google to sneak its way into the digital living room by baking its Android software onto as many set-top boxes as possible. And with so many TVs sold these days featuring Web connectivity, Google could be working to become the operating system for TV’s future — without needing anybody to buy a Google TV device or attachment.
“Apple has Apple TV and the iPad, and Microsoft has the Xbox,” said Jen Soch, svp, activation director advanced TV at MediaVest. “You can start to see where Google could be going with this.”
For one, Google could start to push its own content on TVs connected to Motorola boxes, such as YouTube shows (especially as it looks to beef up its professional series output) or even its own future TV networks (Comcast does it). Google could enable services like Netflix. It could push Motorola’s Xoom, or other Android tablets, as perfect third-screen complements to the ultimate social TV expereince — although consumers right now don’t have the same relationship with their set-top boxes that they do with Xboxes or tablets.
Plus, if Android starts to build penetration on lots of sets, Google might be able to start gathering its own data, which it could use to enhance the Google TV Ads program.
“The set-top boxes are where the data for addressable TV is sitting,” said one observer.
The Google TV Ads initiative has been quiet of late; last fall the company ended its relationship with NBCU, and no other significant network deals have followed. And just a few weeks ago, longtime Google TV executive Michael Steib quietly left the company. More data could provide Google TV Ads with some necessary momentum.
But others say there’s not a chance that Google is able to get any more useful data unless cable companies provide it. And the big guys aren’t going to let Google sneak its software onto their boxes.
“Set-top box companies have never been able to control their own data,” said Morgan. “They are like defense contractors. They build their boxes on spec for the cable operators.”
And the biggest cable operators don’t want the first thing consumers see when they turn on their TV is “welcome to Google TV” or “powered by Google.” And they don’t want uses eschewing their programming guides for Google search boxes.
“That’s why only the weakest cable operators would deploy something like this,” said the insider.
And nobody wants to look weak in front of Google.
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