Google TV undergoes a trial by partisans

Brittany Bohnet and fiancé Dave Morin used to plop in front of the television in their San Francisco living room with a smart phone in one hand and the remote control in the other, computers resting in their laps as they switched their attention from screen to screen.

But with Google TV, the young couple can watch the latest episode of AMC’s “Mad Men,” check updates from friends on Facebook and on Flickr show off photos of Morin’s marriage proposal (in a seaplane over a Maldives beach where he had spelled out the question in coconuts on the sand) — all on one screen.

“We have gone from hundreds of channels to millions of channels,” Bohnet said. “You can build your own TV experience.”

Bohnet, 25, who runs the marketing campaign for Google TV, is one of 400 Google Inc. employees who have been testing Google’s latest venture. Morin, a 29-year-old Internet entrepreneur, is already sold. He believes people will spend even more time in front of their televisions and with each other.

“This is going to be one of those things that people talk about,” he said. “People don’t get what the possibilities are.”

It will be Bohnet’s job to coax the rest of the world to get them. Not everyone will be as easy to convince as Morin. The real test of the Internet giant’s high-stakes gamble to bring the Web to TV comes this fall when the first Logitech International set-top boxes and Sony high-definition television sets and Blu-ray players that run Google TV software land on store shelves.

Google will have to persuade the television audience that so far has shown little interest that they should hook up another set-top box to their televisions or pay a premium to buy a new TV set that runs on Google’s software.

The technology company better known for its ubiquitous search engine will also have to entice manufacturers other than Sony to make Google televisions and retail chains other than Best Buy to sell them. And it must succeed where others have struggled. Boxee Inc., Roku Inc. and TiVo Inc. all make devices that offer Internet video on TV and have yet to gain mainstream traction.

Even Apple’s set-top box, which plugs into a TV to allow viewers to watch movies and shows through iTunes, has stirred little excitement. Analysts say Apple will probably revamp its product and reduce the price to $99 from $229 to take on Google TV. Apple declined to comment on its plans.

Bohnet believes television is ready for a major makeover: No one wants a computer or phone without a browser these days, she says. Why would they want a TV without one?

Google TV gives you a home screen that you can personalize with your favorite shows, channels or websites. It includes a browser and search box to explore the Web and the TV programming lineup. Bohnet can even give her Android or iPhone the voice command, “Friends,” and within seconds it dispatches a search query to the television to find the show’s episodes.

A queue organizes and saves programs Bohnet has recorded and video podcasts she wants to watch. An on-screen guide offers her viewing options by category, say comedies or news programs. If she finds something interesting on her smart phone, she can “fling” it (Google’s terminology for sharing something with the TV) and watch it there.

Her friends no longer have to hunch over a laptop to show each other spoof movie trailers on; anyone with an Android or iPhone has a remote control to her TV at their fingertips. Google TV also makes multitasking easier with a picture-in-picture feature: Bohnet can watch the New York Yankees play the Texas Rangers while browsing baseball statistics on the Web.

Bohnet said she’s already looking forward to sharing television with friends (think text and video chat on the TV screen while watching “American Idol” with a friend in another location, for example). As for other features, she’s banking on the ingenuity of software developers who have helped drive the success of Android smart phones and Apple’s iPhone. Many of the 50,000 applications in the Android store will work on Google TV beginning early next year. That’s when Google will release the software developer’s kit so that developers can begin to roll out applications created for Google TV, Bohnet said.

These applications may help deliver the long-held promise of interactive television, Bohnet said. A prime example is Shazam, an application for smart phones. Not sure what that song is playing on TV? Hold your smart phone near the set for about 30 seconds and Shazam identifies the song and its artist. Shazam then remembers the song and offers you a chance to buy it or play the YouTube video if one’s available.

“We don’t even know what developers are going to do,” Bohnet said.