The drought has broken and Australians are spoilt for choice when it comes to local online video services, even if the lure of Netflix remains strong. Google's Chromecast is set to enter a crowded Australian market, perhaps as soon as this week, but does it have what it takes to stand out from the crowd?
There's no shortage of streaming media players available for Australian lounge rooms; from the Apple TV, FetchTV and Telstra's T-Box to games consoles, smart TVs and internet-enabled Blu-ray players and Personal Video Recorders. At a mere $US35 the Chromecast undercuts them all, but what you get in return might not be what you bargained for.
Google's Chromecast doesn't feature built-in apps like the Apple TV and other traditional streaming media players. You can't flop down on the couch, grab the remote control and fire up the Google Play video store. In fact there isn't even a remote control in the box, just what looks like an oversized memory stick with an HDMI plug on one end -- designed to hang out of the back of your television.
The Chromecast isn't a media 'player', it merely acts as a bridge between your television and your smartphone, tablet or computer. Without one of these devices by your side on the couch the Chromecast is dead in the water. It's more like an alternative to Apple's AirPlay streaming ecosystem than to the Apple TV media player. This could be an instant deal breaker for families happy to hand over the remote to young children, but not to surrender a smartphone or tablet.
This isn't to say that the Chromecast is useless, it's just that end users and service providers need to approach it in a different way. Rather than develop an app to run on the Chromecast, video services need to build Chromecast support into their mobile and desktop streaming apps. When these apps detect a Chromecast on your home network, an icon appears in the corner of the app. This icon lets you select the Chromecast as the playback device -- similar to Apple's pop-up AirPlay menu.
Video is streamed from your gadgets across your home network to the Chromecast and then onto your TV screen. To improve the picture quality, sometimes the Chromecast takes over and streams directly from the web rather than using your wireless device as the middleman.
Google released a Google Cast Software Development Kit earlier this year and third-party video services have already embraced it. After initially launching in the US, the Chromecast recently expanded to Canada and 10 European countries -- with major regional video services such as the BBC getting on board.
Google's Chromecast has seen a much faster international rollout than hardware from most US-centric tech giants. Australia is rumoured to be next in line and Quickflix has publicly confirmed that it's already working on Chromecast support. Telstra will only say it's "in talks with Google about the product but it’s very early stage", while Foxtel says it has "no announcements to make" regarding the Chromecast.
Speaking off the record, other streaming video services are excited about the potential of the Chromecast -- particularly services without their own dedicated hardware player. Anything that makes their service more useful to their customers is seen as a good thing. At these prices, local streaming services could even afford to give away a Chromecast as part of a package deal, although it remains to see how hard the Australia tax will bite.
The first batch of US Chromecasts was locked to Google's 184.108.40.206 DNS servers, making it difficult -- but not impossible -- for foreigners to tap into Netflix. While this sounds appealing to local players threatened by the US streaming giant, the new European Chromecast models reportedly aren't locked to Google's DNS servers.
This raises the prospect that the official Australian model will also offer similar flexibility, but talk of partnering with Telstra to distribute the Chromecast raises the prospect of Telstra locking it down. It's tempting to believe that Google's "don't be evil" ethos would prevent it from allowing a local partner to cripple the Chromecast, but you can't make such assumptions these days.
So what impact will the Chromecast have in Australia? Despite the hype it's likely to be a slow burn, considering that most Australians who want to stream video to their television probably already have a solution in place. With several major streaming services already supporting a wide range of devices, there's little impetus for many homes to add a Chromecast to their lounge room.
After the initial rush by high-tech sightseers, the Chromecast will most appeal to Australian Android owners looking to replicate the convenience of the Apple TV as well as get Google Play content onto their television. To date most Android-based media players, like Kogan's efforts, have been clunky affairs.
Rather than win other tech-savvy homes across from existing streaming boxes, Quickflix and Bigpond will be hoping that the Chromecast can help them extend their reach to mainstream smartphone owners who are yet to embrace the concept of lounge room-based streaming media players. With such a low price point and technical barrier to entry, the Chromecast could be the gadget they've been waiting for in to order make the big push.
If it brings in enough new users to improve their economies of scale and bargaining power with the movie studios, all Australians could eventually benefit from the Chromecast's arrival. Wider mainstream take-up of video services could also discourage them from striking exclusive Android deals with single vendors such as Samsung -- a frustrating practice which further fragments both Android and Australia's streaming media ecosystem.
While it could take a while for Google's Chromecast to make its presence felt in Australia, it could eventually prove to be the great equaliser which brings streaming video to the masses.