For nearly 20 years, the console wars have been the purview of just three companies: Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo. Of the three, Microsoft is the newcomer, with “just” 17 years in the business, compared with 24 for Sony and 35 for Nintendo if you count from the Japanese release of the original Famicom. Since Sony entered the market with the PlayStation, no firm besides Microsoft has successfully broken into the major console market and one (Sega) was forced to exit it. A great deal of verbiage has been written about the difficulty of breaking into consoles, focusing on the huge amounts of money it typically takes and the need to be willing to take a loss on hardware to push software to market. But now there are rumors that Google wants in on this space, and that it might move on that sooner, rather than later.
Now, you could maybe try to get ahead of some of this with better compression technology and possibly a custom approach to an existing standard, but that’s going to require better hardware for encode/decode. H.265 may crunch video into about half the bandwidth of H.264, but it also eats significantly more CPU power to do it. On the positive side, if Google wanted to go the local route — or offer a box that has a mixture of both cloud and local gaming — it has a better platform with which to do it than it used to. There’s an Android-specific Vulkan API implementation and OpenGL ES 3.2 added support for tessellation, and ASTC texture compression via the Android Extension Pack (AEP).
While Google faces incredibly long odds in any effort to bring a new console to market, both in terms of attracting developer support and building a viable hardware platform, the company does have a few specific advantages it brings to the table. Owning services like YouTube give it a powerful ability to incorporate game streaming and content sharing from its own device. Instead of attempting to stream games from a local router already straining to handle the game itself, Google might be able to serve that data off its own infrastructure, provided you used a Google service.
The most obvious hardware partner for Google in all this, at least if it’s targeting a box that would compete against Sony / Microsoft / Nintendo, is Nvidia. While AMD has done a tremendous job with the PS4 and Xbox wins, Nvidia has expertise in key areas where Google would benefit: ARM CPUs (both hardware and software), Android, GPU design and development (again, both hardware and software), and the microconsole and console business. It’s the ARM and Android expertise that put this one over the edge for Team Green — if, of course, what Google wants to build is a relatively high-end, premium product. If the company is looking to enter the market with something that’d be entirely Google-branded and “owned,” it has a plethora of options, from major partners like Qualcomm to smaller SoC manufacturers like AllWinner.
It’s not clear yet when Google will announce products, if it ever does. Long-running projects that are dropped or picked up on a whim is, after all, kind of Google’s Thing. But the company’s entry into the console market could fundamentally shake up the space, if it can win traction for its offering and platform.