There's a disconnect in the world of Chromecast. Customers want apps that work with Google's small, affordably priced TV streaming stick. And developers want to distribute them. Some are already built, and are just waiting to be released to the public.
But so far, no one can offer Chromecast support until Google allows it—and for now, only Netflix and Hulu have entered that charmed circle. Google insists that it will open the gates to all developers, someday. Unfortunately, the company refuses to say when that will be.
All this matters on two levels. The Chromecast is an exciting device for consumers and developers alike, because it offers a new, cheap and simple way to stream video from the Web or a computer to your TV. Yet its potential is so far almost wholly unrealized because of Google's unexplained reticence to permit new apps.
That, in turn, has made Chromecast a test of Google's commitment to openness for some developers. The company has already tweaked its search engine at the behest of Big Copyright to discourage piracy. The reigning fear is that Google might likewise hold up Chromecast apps because Hollywood suits are disconcerted by the prospect of a streaming Wild West in which it's dead simple to fling digital movies and shows to your TV—whether they're legal or not.
Hurry Up And Wait
The July Chromecast announcement didn't just court consumers—it also offered plenty for developers to sink their teeth into. That day, Google concurrently unveiled the Google Cast software developer kit, or Cast SDK—a set of tools for building apps that can stream video, music and other media directly to a TV via the Chromecast gadget.
See also: 5 Cool Chromecast Hacks And Workarounds
True, Google oversold things a bit when it insisted developers could build Chromecast into existing media apps with "fewer than 200 lines of code." That was a bit of "an oversell," said Jeff Lawrence, founder and CEO of PlayOn, a PC-to-TV media server software platform. It takes a little more work to "hook up all those buttons … [but] it's not as hard as building a whole app from scratch. You can just augment your existing app."
Still, once developers dug in, they found that the Cast SDK was largely ready to roll. Even in its current "developer preview" state, they say, its APIs (application programming interfaces, the programming hooks that let apps access Chromecast functions) are powerful and stable enough to support distribution-ready Chromecastic features.
The Cast SDK "is very powerful," Android developer Koushik Dutta explained to me over Google Hangout. A lead at CyanogenMod (now Cyanogen Inc.), Dutta created AllCast, an app that allowed Android users to cast videos, pics and songs to the Google TV stick. "You can build all this stuff … it's just the terms and the way the approval process [works] that keeps you from actually running it everywhere."
He should know: Google hobbled Dutta's AllCast app several weeks ago via Chromecast software updates.
The SDK's "developer preview mode" includes terms that prohibit third parties from publicly distributing Chromecast-compatible apps. Among other things, the SDK requires developers to "whitelist," or register, specific Chromecast devices with Google. This essentially ensures that only pre-approved Chromecasts will work with apps under development.
Which is why companies like PlayOn can't just release new Chromecast apps at will—no matter how eager they are to get them into the hands of users.
PlayOn already lets users stream online video—whether from online services or stored locally on a Windows PC—to TVs via products like Roku and gaming consoles. It wants to release compatibility for Chromecast streaming, and it has already done the development work for it.
The company's recent modifications allow its new PlayCast feature to stream a hidden Web browser window on the computer over to a Chromecast-connected TV. It's a straightforward process—in fact, it's basically the same thing Chromecast does with "tabcasting"—and development with the Cast SDK only took about a month and a half, says Lawrence. But now his company finds itself stuck in a holding pattern, waiting for Google to give it the green light.
PlayOn's not the only one. Bitcasa, an online backup and storage service, thinks it has a hit on its hands: a way for users to stream their own media directly from Bitcasa online backups, regardless of file format. The company evaluated a variety of TV devices, and chose to support Chromecast because of its platform agnosticism. In other words, its openness.
"We think this is a more open platform," Luke Behnke, Bitcasa's director of product, told me last week. "It has a lot of future potential for wide adoption. Also it’s been very easy for us to integrate with … of course, only in a development environment at the moment."
So ultimately developers are flocking to Google's perceived openness … only to find it's currently closed off to most developers.
Only VIPs Can Cross The Chromechasm
When a Chromecast update closed the software hole that let Koushik Dutta's AllCast app evade Google's developer restrictions, it disheartened many Chromecast fans who wanted to cast local files from their mobiles to their TVs. Not to mention Dutta himself.
"I believe the change was intentional to block some of the developers who were using the API in ways that weren't intended," he said. "By limiting access to it, I think they're making sure that they have the maximum flexibility when it comes to dealing with partners with larger media companies."
Those partners include Netflix and Hulu, as well as AOL, Clear Channel, iHeartRadio, Pandora, Qello, Revision3, Songza and the Washington Post. Unlike your rank and file third-party developer, Google's rockstar lineup gets first dibs on publicly supporting streaming to the TV device. Two of them—Netflix and Hulu—already do, and are currently the only non-Google services available to Chromecast users.
Google has already stated that it "would like to support all types of apps, including those for local content," but refuses to say when that will be. And the fact that there don't seem to be any technical barriers to outside Chromecast apps is becoming a real issue for developers.
Google's decision to give "most favored developer" status to major streaming companies is understandable, said PlayOn's Jeff Lawrence. But there's "frustration that the SDK is currently in preview mode. There isn't even a peep, a word, a mention, an estimated time, a goal, a target, anything from Google about when that might come out of preview."
What PlayOn really wants is to release its updated Chromecast-capable app some time this month, in plenty of time for the holiday season. "From the day it launched [in July], if we go to January or February, and we're still sitting here, I'd be pretty upset," Lawrence said.
Dutta, meanwhile, is cooling his heels. He recently had lunch with Chromecast engineers—and says he even fielded a job offer from them. (He turned them down.) But he walked away with some insight: "To give them a little credit—from the engineering side of things—Google is very, very much about having open platforms and allowing other people to build on top of their platforms," he explained. "And I feel like this is not an engineering decision."
And so he has paused his AllCast efforts and development with the Cast SDK as a whole. For now.
"Whether I'm done with Chromecast or not is entirely up to Google at this point," said Dutta. "I would love to get mirroring of an Android device on Chromecast as well. At the office, I'm doing all my PowerPoint presentations on my Apple TV. We never switch to the Chromecast input on that because we can't do it."