Android TV has gained a lot of traction in the consumer marketplace - mostly by virtue of being integrated into a ton of TVs and a few set top boxes. And while that's great for the platform, end users aren't exactly being well served: One notable exception aside, Android TVs are notorious for being underpowered, buggy, and extremely slow to get updates (if they even come).
Google says that's going to be changing, though (I know - how many times has Google said this about Android?), and we sat down with some of the leads on the Android TV team yesterday ahead of I/O to talk about it. Performance has been the top priority in the past year for Android TV, according to Gil Dobjanschi, the Tech Lead of the Android TV team. Android P is going to introduce a host of changes that should see the OS's speed and reliability improve on the kind of hardware the vast majority of Android TV users actually are stuck with (news flash: most people don't own $200 Shield TVs).
Google is so confident in these performance improvements that it's actively working to get them backported into Oreo, so that OEMs can distribute maintenance updates to their devices without having to wait for a full-on update to P. Given how slow and rarely Android TV updates tend to come, that's probably a good idea.
The Android TV team is also working with its partners to develop a variety of "turnkey" software and hardware configurations so as to promote a more consistent experience for end users, and also to speed up OS updates. Google will begin maintaining generic Android TV images so its OEM partners can streamline development, at least for those who are interested. OEMs who don't want to use Google's ready-built solutions will still be free to go their own way, but the sense I left with is that most of these companies are eager to reduce the overhead of software development and support. Dobjandschi also said that, if all goes to plan, OEMs who opt for these turnkey solutions will be able to distribute much faster and more frequent software updates.
Google acknowledged that Android TV's rollout has been a bumpy one, and Shalini Govilpai, the Direct of Product Management for Android TV, emphasized that the focus today was in getting the platform on more "over the top" (OTT) devices going forward, like the just-announced JBL Link Bar. This JBL speaker is just the first product extending Android TV beyond traditional set top boxes and displays, and more are likely coming.
As to the slow uptake of Android 8.0, the Android TV team hopes that future versions of the platform won't lag so badly in terms of adoption rate. In the next several months, more Android TV devices will be released, and all of them will be running Oreo out of the box. Speaking to the development cycle generally, Dobjandschi said Android TV will still lag behind mainline Android P, but by 2019, the team is hopeful that the TV platform will release on the same timeline as the rest of Android.
What does it all mean for you? An Android TV landscape with more homogeneous internal hardware and standardized software builds would provide a more consistent and better overall user experience. Of course, this is taking the optimistic outlook - the one in which Google convinces hardware partners that it is in their best interest to use the same chips and software strategy as their competitors. Google, for its part, seems to think the evidence is on its side, and that most manufacturers want to make implementing Android TV cheaper and easier (and less trouble-prone, reducing customer support costs). That's pretty sound logic, but we'll have to wait and see if that's how things play out.
As to your burning question: "When are we going to see a Google-branded Android TV device for consumers?" Govilpai says that the Android TV platform team is completely independent of Google's hardware division, and can't comment on what that division is planning. Google's hardware business is just another Android TV partner, and if it isn't interested in building its own dongle or set top box, there won't be one.