Chromecast: can a dongle be revolutionary?

Back in 2013 Chromecast was a mystery to me, despite my daily interactions with it. My roommates wanted to watch a movie, stream a song from their phone or watch a funny YouTube video and suddenly it showed up on our beat-up television. I remember looking desperately for a nonexistent HDMI cable, too embarrassed to ask how our archaic TV could be displaying web-content with the click of a button.

Sometimes the best products are the ones we have to think the least about.
I don’t miss the dusty black box

Before Chromecast’s release, televisions were by and large limited to non-web content — of course there were web-enabled consoles like the Roku — but I didn’t know anyone with one. The gulf between our mobile devices and televisions grew as our phones, tablets, and laptops got smarter and faster, while our televisions remained tethered to bulky black boxes. I hate bulky black boxes. Each comes with its own remote and a magical power to collect unhealthy amounts of dust.

So how do you access the web’s content on your TV?

Chromecast is Google’s elegant answer. It takes my breath away because it is both obvious and innovative. The unobtrusive design and price point ($35!) make the Chromecast an easy solution to a hard problem. When I look at a product, I ask a few questions: is it useful? Is it affordable? Is it minimalist? I think Chromecast answers these questions quite well: Yes, absolutely, and very much so.

Both use cases and aggregate penetration metrics suggest that Chromecast has found product fit and is eminently useful to its adopters. By combining the qualitative, bottom up approach of use cases and the quantitative market view, we get a complete product story to answer two key questions: Is the product useful on an individual level? Is this usefulness strong enough to impact society at large?

Let’s think about a typical family household: they own a medium to large television without wifi capabilities. The children often watch television series on Netflix, HBO, or pirated websites with their computers, while the parents watch traditional cable content on the TV. Without a Chromecast-like device, the family can’t watch Internet content on the television; this can be particularly bothersome for the kids when they have friends over. With the Chromecast, the children have complete access to their content and the parents can try out that Netflix exclusive “The Crown” on the TV that everybody is talking about. Now when Jonathan finds a funny cat video, he can throw it up on the TV, rather than everyone crowding around his laptop. In addition, the family found Chromecast to be more useful than its alternatives; options like the Roku and Amazon Fire while useful are limited to pre-selected content providers like Netflix and HBO. This seems to contradict the limitless and open nature of the web. In contrast, the Chromecast can be casted to from any Chrome browser, giving it the ability to display anything on the Internet, magnifying its usefulness.

The aggregate metrics clearly indicate that the individual usefulness of the Chromecast has had a significant effect on the market. Despite entering the market six years after the Roku and Apple TV, the Chromecast is expected to hit 40% market share in 2017. This statistic is so significant because of the market’s trajectory: the size of the market grew by 17% to 221 million units sold in 2015 and is showing no immediate signs of slowing down. I think this is so indicative of the success of digital media streaming devices because I believe the growth signals a shift away from cable towards web-based content, which is only accessible via Chromecast and its alternatives.

Affordability should be a central concern for product success because no product can be successful if its target users can’t buy it. Price can be a serious inhibitor for adopters and demand is elastic, so diminishing the opportunity cost of the product is important to mainstream it. I believe that Chromecast excels in this area because of its $35 price tag. This was so revolutionary when Chromecast was launched in 2013 because the competitors like Apple TV and Roku were three times the price. Even more significantly, the dinner-for-two price level makes the Chromecast an impulse purchase, rather than a steep investment. This degree of affordability blew me away because I would have paid so much more for the service; I think this is one of the reasons for the dramatic adoption rates I noted above. And if imitation is the highest form of flattery, Amazon and Roku have flattered the hell out of Google with competitively priced devices called the Amazon Fire Stick and Roku Stick, furthering Chromecast’s revolutionary impact.

Deiter Rams once famously said, “Good design is as little design as possible.” During my life I’ve found that the products I find most pleasant to use (like the iPhone) are those that employ this philosophy. I think that the Chromecast coheres with this design principle because the Google designers seemed to strip down the user to their one core need and then serviced this need with the least design possible. The need: the user wants to see content from a laptop or smartphone on their TV. The solution: a mere 2 by 1 inch dongle to attach to a TV’s HDMI port. And with that, the need was met. No bulky black box. No remote. No physical buttons. What blows me away most is not the technological innovation behind making such a small dongle, but the break from orthodoxy that Chromecast makes. Prior to the device, adding a new service like a DVR or Xbox to a TV meant two new pieces of hardware: a box and a new remote. Google’s decision to rethink the fundamentals of television design liberated them from making the assumptions their competitors made, giving them the opportunity to build something truly revolutionary.

I clearly am a big fan of the Chromecast device. It’s a daily staple and yet I hardly think about it. The product is elegant and functional. I do believe that Chromecast’s success does have an end-date. The proliferation of Smart TV’s with embedded wifi functionality will eventually diminish Chromecast’s necessity. But until then, this elegant product will bring the content of the inter-webs to living rooms around the world.

Recently, Google launched a new line of Chromecasts with a hardware redesign. Now the puck-shaped dongle hangs on a wire attached to the HDMI port, allowing it to fit in tighter spaces. This is indicative of a good product: it keeps adapting, iterating, and becoming better. It is an idea, not the implementation.