Google released a handful of new products last week, including two new 5G smartphones, new smart speakers, and a new version of its Chromecast streaming device. All of that is interesting, but honestly, it's the last one that I find most intriguing. And, it's not because what the world really needs is another streaming device, but because of what it says about the services that run on them.
More specifically, it's what one button says about why the streaming wars are pretty much over. We'll get to that in just a moment.
The original Chromecast was a simple stick you plugged into the HDMI port on your TV that allowed you to "cast" content from your laptop or smartphone. At first, that meant from a Chrome browser tab, but eventually the platform accepted other apps, like Netflix. On its own, the Chromecast didn't do much of anything, but that was part of its appeal. It only cost $35, and if you didn't already have a smart TV, this simple little piece of technology let you watch content on a much larger screen than your laptop or smartphone.
The most recent version of the Chromecast is a little bigger, a little more expensive and it comes with a remote. It has all the features you might expect from a little device you connect to your TV: 4K HDR video, Dolby Atmos sound, and finally, a remote. In one sense, the very fact that the device has a remote at all is significant: it's the first Chromecast for which that's true. Even more important is what it does.
I just want to get this out of the way right now--this remote puts the Siri Remote that comes with the current Apple TV to shame. It has buttons that are easy to understand, including a power button. It also has an input button to tell your TV to switch to the input for the Chromecast. It has has a touch wheel up top that you're never going to mistake for the bottom half of the remote, which isn't something you can say for Apple's version, leading to all kinds of accidental touch inputs.
It also has all the buttons you might expect. It has one to call up Google Assistant so you can simply tell it what you want to watch, and it will call up the choices from your various streaming service. It also has one for YouTube (it is Google after all).
Then, there's the Netflix button.
Look, there are a lot of remotes that have Netflix buttons. The remote control for my Samsung SmartTV has a Netflix button along with pretty much every smart TV that ships today. In fact, the Netflix button has become so ubiquitous that it even has its own Wikipedia page (I'm not kidding).
But, the companies that make smart TVs--or even streaming boxes, for that matter--don't also have their own competing streaming services. Except, of course, Google and Apple. Yet Google just released a device with a remote that features its biggest competitor. And yes, Netflix and YouTube are competitors.
Sure, one is a paid service and the other is free to use. One has thousands of hours of premium content and the other has billions of hours of everything from people changing car headlights to influencers reviewing the latest gadgets, as well as everything in between. The reality, however, is that they compete directly for how we spend our most precious resource--time.
When it comes to the streaming services that most often fill that time, it's clearly YouTube and Netflix. Sure, Disney+ is great, and there's HBO Max, and Peacock, and Apple TV+. None of those services have a button on this remote, however.
Also, Google was able to get Netflix to do something Apple hasn't: unbundle its content to make it searchable through the Google TV app. That's something you can't do from the Apple TV app on the Apple TV 4K, not to be confused with Apple TV+, the service. (These names are confusing, I know.)
It just shows you that Netflix still has almost all of the influence in the streaming war. Despite the entry of a handful of competitors, Netflix still has the largest audience, the biggest content library, and continues to flex its muscles every chance it gets.
Sure, Netflix offers to pay a lot of money for all of those buttons on all of those remotes, but the bigger statement is that Google was even interested in the conversation. It's not like Google needs the cash, and I'm not even entirely sure it sells the Chromecast to make money, or simply to give it a position against, well, mostly Apple.
Netflix. It's right there on the remote, next to Google's own. They're still the two biggest streaming video services. Which means, the reality is that after all of the excitement over new streaming services and the idea of a streaming war, on the battle field that matters most, Netflix is still holding ground.