Chromecast turns one: why this small streaming stick became such a big deal

One year ago today, Google(S GOOG) surprised the world by announcing Chromecast, a small dongle that makes it possible to stream YouTube, Netflix(S NFLX) and other online media services to the TV. At the time, Chromecast was radically different from any of the other streaming devices out there — and since then, it has begun to change how we think about smart TVs, and the intersection of mobile devices and living room entertainment.

So cheap, and so different

When Google unveiled Chromecast, two things stood out right away. The first was the price; at $35, Chromecast was cheaper than any of its major competitors, with Roku’s cheapest model starting at $50, and Apple(S AAPL) TV selling for $100.
But the even bigger surprise was that Chromecast proposed a whole new interaction model: Media playback is initiated from a mobile device or PC, and content is being played straight from the cloud. This builds upon Apple’s Airplay concept, but takes them even further with a cloud focus and an unapologetic take-it-or-leave-it approach. There simply is no other way to use Chromecast. No remote control, no on-screen menus and no apps.

400 million cast sessions

The result is both radically different and strangely familiar. Using a Chromecast is unlike using any smart TV, or any TV period, for that matter. But that’s a good thing: Most smart TVs are a user experience nightmare, which is why Chromecast is piggybacking on the one interaction model that has proven to work: mobile. People love mobile media apps, and services like YouTube are starting to see 40 percent and more mobile use. Chromecast is taking this and other proven success stories and extending them to the TV, simply by asking users to to what they’re already doing, save for that one extra button to start casting.
And users are pressing that button a lot: Google still hasn’t exactly said how many Chromecast devices it has sold in the 20 countries it is now available, with representatives just repeating for months that the company has sold “millions.” However, Google announced one new metric Thursday: Chromecast users have cast media 400 million times since the device  was first released a year ago. I asked a Google spokesperson to clarify what that means: If I play multiple YouTube videos in one sitting, does it count as multiple casts? The answer: Nope, that would be one session. Basically, that cast button has been pressed 400 million times to start casting media from an app.
Google also said Thursday that Chromecast is now available in more than 30,000 stores worldwide, and repeated that more than 6,000 developers have signed up to add casting to their mobile or web apps. Already, there are hundreds of cast-capable apps available, according to Google. And it’s worth noting that one year later, Chromecast remains the #1 selling electronics item on Amazon(S AMZN), even while the online retailer is trying to push its own competitor, the Fire TV.

Competitors are getting the streaming stick fever

Speaking of competitors: One of the best signs that Chromecast is succeeding is to look at the reactions of its competitors. Roku has revamped its own streaming stick to make it HDMI-compatible like Chromecast, Mozilla has partnered with consumer electronics newcomer Abitcool to make a Firefox OS-powered Chromecast competitor, and even Intel’s(S INTC) never-launched OnCue streaming service switched from a dedicated living room box with a very unique design to a streaming stick before it eventually got sold to Verizon(S VZ).

mozilla stick featured

A prototype of a Firefox OS-powered streaming competitor that Abitcool is developing with help from Mozilla.

And then there are the ones that have already given up. I’ve heard that at least one major consumer electronics manufacturer was developing their own streaming box, but ended up throwing in the towel after Google released Chromecast. And then there is QPlay, the video service developed by TiVo’s co-founders, which apparently missed the mark to pull the plug on its hardware plans. The company released a device with Chromecast-like functionality, but severely limited media services support, in February. By June, QPlay added support for Chromecast, effectively killing its own hardware. And earlier this week, the company completely pulled the plug on the project and shut it down.

Why Chromecast continues to be disruptive

But Chromecast’s success isn’t just about numbers and market share. It also has the potential to change the economics of the consumer electronics and connected device market. As I wrote in February, streaming boxes have long been impeded by the need of manufacturers to make an extra buck with content service partnerships in light of razor-thin margins, which combined with the need to satisfy the retail channel has lead to a situation in which the services carried are not dictated by customer demand but money. Chromecast puts this model on its head. In the absence of an on-screen app store, there is no need to select and prioritize. And while the mobile app stores may not be a perfect model of equality, they sure beat the skewed world of TV apps.
Google is currently on in the process of rolling out two updates to Chromecast that could have huge implications as well. The first, which was announced at Google I/O in June, is screen mirroring. Again, this isn’t exactly new; Airplay has offered mirroring for some time. But combine it with Chromecast’s price tag and its cloud focus, and things are starting to get interesting.
Screen mirroring officially launched earlier this month for select Android devices, so it’s still early days. But with a remarkably low lantency, it could be a way to bring gaming to Chromecast, and Android’s ability to let developers display content on a second, virtual display could bring a whole range of other multiscreen applications to the device.
Google’s other significant Chromecast announcement hasn’t launched yet, but it is just as interesting. Some time in the coming weeks or months, Google will allow Chromecast users to personalize their device home screen, which has been a series of HDR-heavy nature photos ever since Chromecast launched. Some of the personalizations previewed by at Google I/O include the addition of personal photos, weather reports, news and curated art. In addition, Chromecast’s home screen itself will gain multiscreen capabilities, allowing users to look up information about the photos or artwork displayed on their TVs with their mobile devices.

Photo by Janko Roettgers/Gigaom

Photo by Janko Roettgers/Gigaom

This update may at first feel playful and insignificant, but it foreshadows a world in which TVs are much more than just the screens we use to flake out on the couch with. They could become literal monitors for the smart home, display and visualize sensors and connected things around us. They could keep us connected to our friends and family through photos and more, and become ambient displays of information that deliver a lot more value than just movies and TV shows.
In other words: Chromecast hasn’t just changed how we interact with smart TVs; it’s starting to challenge our concept of what a TV is and what it could be — which is pretty impressive for a small $35 streaming stick.