My mom is pretty jazzed about the Chromecast. When I showed my favorite 71-year-old how to beam Netflix to her TV using Google's new mobile-to-TV streaming dongle, she was delighted—even as someone who is averse to email. It would seem that the gut reaction of countless eager consumers flooding the Chromecast pre-order forms is founded: This thing is awesome because it’s simple. But its small size and slick marketing belie its incompleteness.
Unlike other home theater technology companies, Apple and Google have yet to make an effort to move beyond their proprietary systems. Jumping between AirPlay and Chromecast, I can't help but think that both of these devices are awesome—except that they’re missing an open standard.
After beaming a few YouTube videos to the TV from the new Nexus 7, my mother instinctively asked "Okay, now can we get the grandkids on here? Let's FaceTime the kids." I had to explain to her that we couldn't do that. If I had brought my Apple TV over to her place, we could do it from her iPad, but since this new Chromecast thing was made by Google and right now only works with Android devices like the Nexus 7, it’s a no-go. In all likelihood, an app like Skype for Android will soon support Chromecast-enabled video chat, but it'll take time for developers to adopt support, and this thing hasn't even shipped yet.
For somebody like my mother, the idea of beaming a video from a phone (or in her case, iPad) to the TV without fidgeting with wires is pretty astonishing stuff. She's seen it at my house with my Apple TV, but this time I was letting her tap the little Chromecast icon on the Nexus 7 and watch it take over her own TV screen, which is normally filled with whatever inane garbage happens to be on cable TV. The metaphor should be simple: The TV is a big monitor for your phone. Except there are so many caveats that the metaphor totally breaks down, making these devices exceptionally hard to grasp, even for hardware nerds.
"If I had one of these I'd use it all the time," she told me. "I'm sick of all these vampire shows and now this Under the Dome thing is on. I mean, come on."
I mentioned that my mother isn't the most tech-savvy person on the planet. That's mostly true. Sure, she doesn't know how to attach a file to an email, but in the last 7 months, she's developed a full-blown addiction to her new iPad. And now, when she sees video being pushed effortlessly from an iPad-looking device to her television set, she instinctively wants it. But alas, when the Chromecast ships next week, she wouldn't be able to use it for much.
There are a few reasons for this. First of all, Chromecast is so new that developers haven’t had time to build support for Chromecast into their apps. Much to Google's credit, they've launched an API to facilitate exactly that. It also plays nice with the browser, so in theory a web-based video will be supported. This is huge.
But even when there are a million Chromecast-ready mobile apps and support for Chromecast comes built right into Chrome on all platforms, we'll still be left with two separate, non-compatible standards for doing the same exact thing: Beaming videos from small devices to big screens. Sure, there'll be a lot of crossover among third-party apps. But will Apple rush to add Chromecast support to FaceTime and its other apps? When will Chromecast for Chrome start supporting QuickTime? Maybe these will both be non-issues in six months.
But as I use technologies like AirPlay and Chromecast—as wonderful as they both are—it’s painfully obvious that I, the consumer, am getting shortchanged in large part because these giant tech companies compete in other businesses. It's the same reason iPhone users were stuck with a substandard mapping application for several months last year. Just give us something that works according to a metaphor we can understand. Is the TV a giant monitor for our phones, or not?
It almost feels too improbable to even bother proposing, but why not have a cross-platform standard for this? Such an idea may seem anachronistic in this era of walled gardens and ever-battling tech titans, but why succumb to the status quo just because? After all, the web we all know and love was built out of a lot of open technologies and standards, without which today's more closed systems wouldn't even be possible (or much fun, at least).
Imagine the following scenario: It's Thanksgiving. The whole family is in the same house for once. Maybe you all want to watch a movie on Netflix. Or perhaps there's an adorable, iPhone-shot video of your baby cousin on somebody's phone. Or just a funny YouTube clip. A half dozen of you are all in the living room, sitting in front of the same giant HDTV. Wouldn't it be cool if any of you could take out your phone and, in less than 30 seconds, let everyone watch the video on the same big screen?
It would be cool, and if the platforms happen to match up and the app supports the TV-beaming standard, it's totally possible. But in such an unplanned, multi-person media-sharing scenario, complications seem unavoidable. You want to share that video? Sure, I just got a Chromecast. Oh, wait. That's an iPhone. Can you open the video in Chrome? Actually, screw it, let me hook up my old Apple TV and we'll AirPlay it.
If after that, somebody wanted to share a video from their Samsung Galaxy S4, they could, but only after switching inputs. Windows Phone? Ugh, forget it.
With separate, platform-tethered solutions for this simple, universally useful kind of feature, hopping around between streaming devices, mobile platforms, and apps is going to be a necessity. User experience bottlenecks will prevail. This isn't the end of the world, in and of itself, but it's not consistent with user expectations.
Of course, the big tech companies aren't solely to blame for this woefully inconsistent state of Internet TV. Content providers and online video services still need to adopt the standards and design a TV-friendly experience. As widely adopted as AirPlay is, I still can't get Amazon's Instant Video app to push videos from my iPad to my TV. And not because of technical limitations.
Chromecast has a long way to go, as do developers in their efforts to support what is still a brand-spankin'-new technology. For now, Apple TV's AirPlay is far more content-capable, but as the far-cheaper Chromecast evolves, Apple may soon find itself with some serious catching up to do.
[Image: Flickr user Rafael Acorsi]