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Chromecast, Unicorns and the Cable Industry

TV with Unicorn being streamed from a phone
Credit: Flickr and Google

Last Wednesday, July 24th, Google unveiled Chromecast. Chromecast is a small, $35 device that hooks into an HDMI port that allows content to be streamed from various devices to a TV or A/V receiver.  Putting the hardware aside for a second, Chromecast is also a suite of software that works together to enable streaming from cloud content sources or local content sources to a TV.  While many are interested in the hardware, the software may have a bigger long term impact.

The Chromecast device and software platform have captured the imagination of the tech media. There have been some over the top headlines; there have also been some realizations that the device is not in fact a unicorn with the blood of the cable industry dripping from its alicorn.  At $35 no one should be surprised that the device is bound to be popular.  It’s long been a dream of many to have the kind of content-slinging media freedom that the Chromecast provides.  In some ways the very thing that justifies its existence is the least interesting part of the story.  Google has revealed a platform for media consumption that is extensible.  That potential future seems far more intriguing than its capabilities at the moment.

There are two ways the Chromecast can function.  The device can either stream locally or through some third party services.  There are currently four third party services that work through the cloud: Netflix, Youtube, Google Play Movies and Google Play Music.

Diagram of Chromecast software architechture
Chromecast Streaming Architechture Credit: Google

Chromecast Through the Cloud

All of the four apps have a Cast button that throws the video or audio from the app to the TV through the Chromecast device.  The content does not actually stream over the local network.  Once the Chromecast is set up, the app signals your intention to watch some content and the content gets pushed down straight from one of the video providers to the Chromecast device.  Essentially, the supported apps are a remote control that talk to your Google account and push the video down to your TV.  As with all things cloud, if the Google account part of that goes down, the service as a whole is rendered useless.  However, we’ve all gotten used to the new world of the cloud, right?

Chromecast Tab Streaming

For web applications that don’t have an app with a Cast button, like Hulu, Chromecast has the ability to mirror the display of any Chrome tab to the TV.  Tab streaming is implemented using an emerging web standard called WebRTC.  The stream on the TV is a local live stream opened up between the Chromcast enabled app and the Chromcast device.   Tab streaming will be upsetting for services, like Hulu, that charge for mobile usage but have free content on the web.  The capability is really just a fallback to provide access to content that will never provide an implementation of cloud streaming.  Since there are only four cloud streaming services for the moment, it is essential to the growth of the Chromecast platform to provide this capability.  As the Chromecast platform grows, it is likely to be a catch-all and nothing more.  The future of the Chromecast platform lives and dies with its ability to communicate directly with services that provide access to content.

Chromecast Extensibility

The currently supported apps are cute, but relatively uninteresting in the context of the future possibilities.  They provide a reference implementation going forward.  Google also announced an API for developers to build new apps that can interface with the Chromecast dongle.  Here is where some of the more exciting features come into play.  The Chromecast dongle is not required to interface with cloud content providers.  There is also an API to implement a Chromcast receiver.  That receiver API is where things really open up.  The receiver API is based on HTML5 and Javascript.  The receiver communicates with Google.  When asked, it opens up a web page with the new HTML5 video capabilities.  This is both where the possibilities simultaneously open up and break down.  There is a sender API for Android (Java), iOS (Objective C) and Chrome (Javascript).  Windows Phone and Blackberry are notably left out for the moment.  On the receiver side, in theory, any platform that has HTML5 capabilities will technically be capable of being a receiver.  In other words, any platform that has a browser can be a receiver.  Currently Google is holding back on access to both APIs.  Only app developers approved by Google can use the API.  In the early days of a platform this helps keep the user experience clean.  I’d have to imagine Google will slowly let go over time.

When or if Google lets go of these restrictions the big picture gets very interesting.  If the standard catches on one could stream from a Chromecast-enabled app to any number of receivers that have implemented the receiver API.  The idea really opens up if TiVo, Sonos and other device makers become streamable targets.  The options open up the imagination.

The Future of Chromecast

It’s pretty easy to then imagine a cable box or other TV-connected device being a receiver and the world of possibilities that comes along with that.  That’s where the Chromecast dongle is weak.  It ignores the current reality that most TV consumption happens over a cable provider’s connection.  Some forward-leaning tech enthusiast may tell you that the future of TV is over the top connected services like Netflix, but back here in reality that is just not happening.  The future of Chromecast is not simply a single dongle, but whether or not Google can integrate the Chromecast services into devices that provide a breadth of video services, including cable and over the top services.  The dream is not a $35 HDMI dongle that requires one to switch inputs constantly, but a box that revolutionizes the industry.  There is a smartphone moment in the TV industry that is just around the corner.  Will Chromecast be a part of it?

Sources: theVerge, the Verge, Droid Life, Google, Android Authority,