With Motorola, Google TV just got a huge shot in the arm

Google’s acquisition of Motorola (s mmi) isn’t just about the Android mobile market. In addition to giving Google some mobile hardware capabilities and patent coverage, the purchase could also be a big boost to Google TV. (s goog) But to make that happen, Google TV will need to shift its positioning from an operating system that is sold to consumers to one that will be used by a number of pay TV operators instead.

Google TV has been a flop

Introduced to much fanfare last year, the first generation of Google TV products has largely underwhelmed consumers. Logitech, (s logi) which invested heavily in the OS with its Google TV Revue set-top boxes, has taken a huge hit from the lack of interest in the product. It recently slashed the price of the Revue boxes from $249 to $99. Sony (s sne) has also heavily discounted its first generation of Google TV products, slashing the price of its entry-level 24″ Google TV product in half.

While the second iteration of Google TV shows a little more promise, with a more open app ecosystem and improved user interface, Google would still largely be playing catchup in the home device market. Apple (s aapl) has sold more than a million Apple TVs, and Roku is on pace to have more than 3 million of its streaming boxes sold by the end of the year. That’s not even counting the millions of TVs and Blu-ray players from manufacturers like Samsung, Vizio and Toshiba that all have their own app ecosystem.

Motorola adds the scale, credibility Google TV needs

Google TV will get some benefit from existing Android applications, as they can be easily ported over to TV products. But with so few actual devices sold, Google might have difficulty giving developers a reason to build TV-specific applications, especially when there are so many other TV operating systems to choose from.

That could all change, as Google just bought a very strong player in the set-top box and home devices market. According to Infonetics, Motorola Mobility was the leader in set-top box revenues last year, and was also tops in hybrid IP/QAM set-top boxes — that is, the boxes used by operators like Verizon (s VZ) that combine broadcast TV and over-the-top applications. By leveraging Motorola’s position with carriers, Google can better solidify its bid to expand Google TV and Android into the living room.

On the call announcing the deal this morning, Motorola Mobility CEO Sanjay Jha pointed to Motorola’s strong relationships with pay TV operators and noted there is a transition underway, as operators shift from traditional set-top boxes to IP-connected boxes. “There is great convergence between the mobile world and content that comes to the home through set-top boxes. Working with the carriers, we’ll be able to accelerate that convergence which will excite customers.”

Google TV could accelerate operators’ shift to the cloud

Many operators are using IP-based services in a bid to improve the user interface of and add applications to their set-top boxes. Comcast, (s CMCSA) for instance, recently unveiled a new cloud-based UI for its set-top boxes, and other operators — like Time Warner Cable (s TWC) and Cablevision (s CVC) — are looking to follow suit.

Until now, most set-top boxes have run proprietary operating systems. As a result, offering up Google TV as the underlying OS could simplify and accelerate the rollout of new applications on cable systems, which could improve the overall user experience on the set-top box. And by pitching Google TV as the underlying OS for Motorola set-top boxes sold to TV operators, it could very quickly create a large install base for developers to build applications for.

The one question is how open that set-top box will remain if Google shifts from a consumer- to a carrier-based model for Google TV. Operators in the TV space have been notorious for keeping their set-top experience a walled garden, and it’s unclear if they’d be willing to have their live TV and video on-demand services alongside applications like Netflix (s NFLX) or Hulu Plus. Then again, before the iPhone and Android took over, no one thought the mobile operators would embrace an open app ecosystem on mobile handsets either.