Coming soon in Web video: Googlers bearing gifts

Google chief Eric Schmidt, with other tech executives, announces Google's Internet-powered TV.
Google chief Eric Schmidt, with other tech executives, announces Google's Internet-powered TV. (Paul Sakuma/associated Press)
Sunday, May 23, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO Fellow journalists, it's past time to retire the traditional description of Google: "the Mountain View, Calif., Web-search firm."

If that wasn't clear before, it should be obvious after this week's Google I/O conference here, dominated by a series of ambitious initiatives in such non-search markets as Web video and television software.

But in another sense, this week's announcements represented Google as usual. They fit into an old template: giving away a service or software that other companies charge for, often in inferior forms. Google's reward is more people spending more time online, and therefore a bigger market for its Web ads.

Users just need to decide whether each Google offering performs as advertised, justifies exposing some of their data and, increasingly, merits spending still more of their lives in Google's world.

This week, Google's most-rewarding gift could be a Web video format that might end a prolonged and sometimes pointless squabble over how we watch TV and movie clips online.

Adobe's widely installed Flash Player owns that market today. But its performance and security problems have left it widely unloved, and it doesn't work in most mobile devices today.

Until Wednesday, that solution looked to be a commercial format called H.264 that's free for most people to use but may not be after 2015. As a result, the second most-popular browser, Mozilla Firefox, won't play H.264.

Google's solution was to donate a video format called VP8 under open-source, royalty-free terms, then combine that with the open-source Vorbis audio format into a new WebM multimedia standard.

Chrome, Firefox and Opera will support this; Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Apple's Safari won't, but because Adobe's Flash Player will also play WebM content, the opposition of Microsoft and Apple may not matter, nor may WebM possibly performing slightly worse than H.264. But iPhone and iPad users may find themselves cut off from a growing share of video.

Then there's Google TV, its new software to connect the TV with the Web. When it ships this fall on Sony HDTVs and Blu-ray players and a Logitech set-top box, it should let you find things to watch -- on cable, satellite or the Internet -- with far more ease than traditional program guides.

Because it runs Google's Chrome Web browser, with Flash included, it should play almost any online video (although sites such as the increasingly obstructionist Hulu could block Google TV). And because it's Android underneath, it can run many Android apps.

Considering other firms' clumsy or apathetic efforts -- such as Apple's neglected Apple TV -- the market needs somebody to wake things up. Google could play the same constructively disruptive role here that it did in Web-mail.

Google also unveiled a major update to its Android operating system. This Android 2.2 release -- called "Froyo," short for "frozen yogurt," as part of Google's habit of naming Android releases after desserts -- includes a long list of features on many Android users' wish lists.

For example, Google says Froyo runs individual Android apps from two to five times faster than Android 2.1, or Eclair. Web pages should also feel snappier, thanks to better JavaScript support; in one of many jabs at Apple, a demonstration showed a Froyo phone outrunning an iPad in a benchmark test.

Froyo will also include Adobe's Flash player. If this software doesn't extract a price in performance or battery life, it will give Android a new advantage over Apple's iPhone -- Apple chief executive Steve Jobs has publicly banned Flash from its mobile devices.

Even if you like your iPhone, you should appreciate Apple's phone getting stronger competition from Android. Apple has exceptionally fixed ideas about what people want in a phone, and the most effective check to its control-freak instincts is a compelling alternative in the market.

I'm less enthused by Google's third major consumer product introduction, its Chrome Store. The idea behind this Web storefront, to be integrated into its Chrome browser later this year, is to make it as easy to get Web applications as it is to add software to an Android device or iPhone.

But the Web already offers capable tools to find Web apps: search, links and bookmarks.

I am much more interested in seeing what developers can cook up using the Web standards Google promoted on the first day of the conference. The graphically enriched, interactive Web edition of Sports Illustrated demonstrated during that morning's keynote should look and work as well in Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Apple's Safari and Opera Software's eponymous browser. (The weak standards compliance of Microsoft's Internet Explorer leaves it behind; the fact that Google was comfortable brushing aside IE speaks to Microsoft's crumbling relevance on the Web.)

But Google I/O also provided a useful reminder that Google's latest gifts rely on network machinery that can seize up. Both keynotes were interrupted repeatedly by wireless bugs; several times during Thursday's event, presenters asked people in the audience to shut off Bluetooth wireless on their phones to free up the airwaves.

Keep that cringe-inducing exhibit of technological frailties in mind before you order one of everything off Google's menu.

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