Google Chromecast's secret weapon: piracy

The new device from Google makes watching fringe-legal content a dream.

At its summer launch event last Wednesday, Google announced two new hardware products: the second generation Nexus 7, and the Chromecast. The former is a largely incremental upgrade to Google's in-house Android tablet, the first generation of which launched last year. It's much needed, since the older Nexus 7s are feeling very clunky indeed in comparison to newer tablets like the iPad mini, and positions the company well in the run up to the inevitable announcements from Apple in the autumn.

But the most interesting launch was the Chromecast, a small HDMI dongle that lets owners stream video wirelessly from their computers and mobile devices straight to their TVs. In practice, it's in direct competition with the Apple TV and Sky's new Now TV box, two other devices which exist to get content from the internet and hard-drives on to the biggest screen in the house. But the route it has taken is very different, and could be the key to its success or failure.

Apple TV and Now TV – which is itself a rebranded and cut-price Roku box – both work with a portfolio of apps allowing streaming from various web services. Apple TV, for instance, hooks in to YouTube, Sky News and Netflix; Now TV lets users buy day passes to Sky Sports or Sky Movies, as well as use catch-up services like iPlayer. Chromecast does some of that as well, offering hooks into Netflix, YouTube and Google Play.

(That Netflix hookup caused the first teething problem of the device, just days after launch, when Google was forced to scrap an offer of three free months of the service due to abnormally high take-up. They'd apparently forgotten that offering a $24 service free with a $35 device meant that people would buy it just to see what the fuss was about.)

But what the Chromecast also does is let users stream from a Chrome tab – any tab, on any web page. The company itself shows off that feature with a screen showing someone's photos on Google+, but it's pretty clear that that isn't the way the vast majority of users are going to see it. After just a day with the device, Wired's Matt Honan described some of the ways he used it:

Yes, you can play local video. At least some of it. A not-strictly-speaking legitimate copy of Black Mirror in MKV file format played magnificently on our television when we dropped it in a Chrome browser window.

Likewise, if you’re running it in a browser, Amazon Instant video, Hulu, Rdio, and HBO Go all just work. As did video from Wired, Gawker media, and Flickr slideshows. We ran photos from Facebook fullscreen. We watched a live Flash stream of a Braves game on an extremely shady bootleg site that spawned approximately a gazillion Chrome windows in the background.

The route Apple and Sky are taking requires individual negotiations with every content provider, any one of whom can refuse to renew and scupper the service in a moment. To a certain extent, you can push that requirement to other services – but then there's the risk that your box will just become a glorified thoroughfare to Netflix, with little to recommend it on its own terms.

Google's method, by contrast, is to allow any user to watch any web video they can get hold of. That includes services like 4OD and SkyPlayer, which Channel4 and Sky may not be too happy to license directly. Moreover, when Chromecast is mirroring a Chrome tab, it is indistinguishable from an actual web browser, so there's no easy way for the broadcasters to block it (a flaw that scuppered Google's previous attempt to do the same thing with Google TV.

But most importantly, there's the fact that the open web is a really good place to find stuff for free, illegally. From sites which livestream every UK freeview channel, to repositories of the entirety of The Simpsons or Family Guy, there's a wealth of content which is, in practical terms, exclusive to Chromecast.

It's not an exclusive which Google's ever actually going to be able to advertise, but it could be the key to taking internet TV boxes mainstream – with them at the forefront of the charge.

A Chromecast in action. Photograph: Google

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.