SAN FRANCISCO -- Google (GOOG) launched a new foray into the crowded field of tech companies that want to deliver Internet video to your television set, unveiling a deceptively simple-looking device Wednesday that costs just $35 and is small enough to fit on a key chain.
The Chromecast gadget is designed to turn a smartphone or tablet into an easy-to-use remote control for sending material from the Internet -- including high-definition video from YouTube and Netflix -- to the much bigger screens of the familiar television sets that most people have in their homes.
While the device has limitations, several industry experts said its low price may have significant appeal. "I think it's a brilliant end run around the complexity of other Internet TV solutions," said Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps.
Other tech companies, from Apple (AAPL) and Microsoft to TiVo and Roku, have developed hardware for delivering Internet content on television sets. But none has completely won the hearts of consumers. Google has stumbled in two previous attempts.
Various technical obstacles, unwieldy user controls and even the difficulty of securing program rights have made the Internet TV market "a very difficult nut to crack," said Ross Rubin, who tracks technology for the Reticle Group.
But despite the popularity of laptops, tablets and smartphones, Epps said, "consumers still watch many hours a day of television, so any tech platform wants to get more of those minutes" of consumers' attention.
Google introduced the Chromecast device at a press event where the giant Internet company also showed off a new Nexus 7 mini-tablet with a high-definition screen, an update to its Android Jelly Bean mobile software and an expansion of its online books business that will sell digital versions of college textbooks from five leading publishers.
News of the tablet had leaked out days earlier. But the Chromecast was a tightly held secret. Epps praised the 2-inch device, which plugs into the HDMI port of a high-definition TV, as a "smaller, more elegant approach" than Google's previous attempts at Internet television.
Those include Google TV, which combined specially made television sets with a set-top box and a complicated set of user controls, and the Nexus Q, a $300 bowling ball-shaped device for streaming audio and video content, which Google pulled from the market just weeks after it was announced.
Chromecast is a simpler system. When plugged into the TV, the gadget automatically connects with a home Wi-Fi router as well as other Wi-Fi-enabled devices such as smartphones, tablets or laptop computers. Anyone in range can use a smartphone or computer as the "remote control" to select video or music from any provider that has built Chromecast compatibility into its app.
Once an app is selected, the Chromecast device streams directly to the television from the home's Internet router. It can also stream Web material directly from any computer using Google's Chrome browser.
Two leading sources of Internet video, Netflix and Google's own YouTube service, have made their apps compatible, executives said Wednesday, while Pandora Media and several other companies have new apps in the works. Google didn't mention Amazon or Hulu, however, although Senior Vice President Sundar Pichai said he expects more companies will want to partner in the future.
Chromecast is somewhat similar to the AirPlay service that Apple offers with its $99 Apple TV device, analysts noted. Apple TV doesn't work with Android devices, however, while Chromecast works with both Android and Apple smartphones and tablets.
"We won't force you to have the same operating system on all your devices," said Google Vice President Mario Queiroz.
Some analysts were skeptical about the device. Consumers can already choose from a variety of set-top boxes, game consoles and other Internet-connected hardware, said Gartner's Van Baker. Microsoft's Xbox console is currently one of the biggest-selling Internet TV devices. "It's not like it's hard to get Netflix or Hulu or any of the services on your television," he said.
But Epps said the Chromecast "is doing just enough and much more cheaply" than competing products.
About six in 10 U.S. households that have broadband Internet access are able to watch some kind of digital content on their televisions already, said Michael Greeson of the Diffusion Group, a market research firm. But he said the Google gadget could offer a wider range of content at a low price.
"This device could be surprisingly successful," Greeson said.
Contact Brandon Bailey at 408-920-5022. Follow him at Twitter.com/BrandonBailey.