March 07, 2013, 8:45 PM —
The battle for market share in small screens, the smartphones and tablets, gets immense attention and coverage, and it's dominated by Apple, Google, and, to a much lesser extent, Microsoft and BlackBerry. Each player has multiple products, cross-device platform powers, and near-constant rumors surrounding their next moves.
The market for the big screens is, by comparison, much more staid and unexciting. Apple TV is interesting, Google TV is getting there, and while the XBOX line is a big hit, most people still see it as a gaming platform. There are rumors, especially around the Apple television platform that Steve Jobs claimed to have "cracked" shortly before passing on. But people don't buy TVs that often, and every device that can stream Netflix seems just as capable as the next.
Yet there's one player that is quietly, consistently winning the hearts and screens of people looking for a way to bring the instant access joy of the web to their TV, and it's a company without phones, tablets, publicly traded stock, quotable CEOs, or ardent fans or haters. It's the kind of company that ends a blog post about an entirely new version of its flagship device with this kind of statement:
We don’t believe in tech for tech’s sake. We’re not going to make you shout or gesture at your TV. We just want to bring you the best TV experience, and we’re extremely proud of the Roku 3.
I and many others like the Roku so much precisely because of what it isn't: a technology giant with its cyborg arms in many, many markets. It's a company that makes an affordable box that sends web video, and maybe a few games, to your TV. And it does basically just that, but does it so well, and with so little fuss.
The newest Roku is $99, just like every new Roku. It's a tiny black box you can probably fit in your palm. There's just a power cord and an HDMI cable coming out of it, unless you're hooking up an ethernet cable. The remote is not too small, like the Apple TV remote, and it's not a giant honkin' keyboard, as with some Google TV units. Roku sells replacement parts and accessories for almost laughably low-margin prices.
Image via Roku
The Roku interface is similarly dead-simple: a horizontal row of channels you can move left and right through with a remote. You can add on tech-y home theater apps for in-home streaming, like Plex, or services like Spotify, or a USB/SD card player app, but, really, it's just a simple way to get to Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, Pandora, and, on newer models, Angry Birds.
Roku lacks the mirroring powers of the Apple TV, which means you can't tap to send audio and video from your iPhone, iPad, or MacBook to your TV. It doesn't have DVR powers or an integrated web browser, like Google TV. Roku also lacks for YouTube. There are Roku remote apps for iOS and Android that make typing easier and can display the phone's music and pictures, but no video (yet).
But, again, Roku's most powerful promise is its independence. Every device on Earth, just about, can stream Netflix. Apple TV has Hulu Plus, but not Amazon Instant Video, because Apple has iTunes, which sells and rents movies and TV shows, just like Amazon. Google TV has Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, but not Hulu Plus, because--actually, why doesn't Google TV offer Hulu Plus? Google TV has HBO's streaming HBO Go, but Apple TV doesn't; Apple TV has NHL and MLB and NBA, but not Google TV. Meanwhile, Roku has all of those things. Roku is missing YouTube and access to the iTunes and Google Play stores, but that's just how it is when it comes to competition. You can beam pictures and music to your Roku from an iOS or Android device, but no video (yet).
More than just the big stuff, Roku has hundreds and hundreds of channels, which are very easy for nearly anyone to develop by slapping a slightly customized HTML wrapper around some video feeds. Some of these channels are quality streaming brands that found a welcome home: TuneIn Radio, TED, Revision3, TWiT, Smithsonian Channel, and CrunchyRoll anime, among others. Some are very niche properties, of varying visual and interface polish. But it's free for anyone with video, audio, or pictures to put it up on Roku.
WNYC's On The Media recently profiled one particularly intriguing Roku channel, The Autism Channel. It's a cluster of shows starring, and made for, people on the autistic spectrum. It might be a very long time before such a channel became a must-include item on Apple or Google's TVs, but Roku has a simple development program, not many corporate entanglements, and a willingness to let people with decent content get it onto TVs. (If you want indecent content, you can get that, too, through "private channels"; search around, if you'd like).
The Roku 3 is out now, and here's what's new: a headphone jack on the remote, a slightly reworked interface (basically, from horizontal row to a grid), and some slightly upgraded internals. Then again, every Roku released since November 2011 gets the upgraded interface, and the interface on those older models can still grab new channels as they arrive. So: a headphone jack, basically.
The Roku box isn't part of total web/content/device/cloud scheme, as imagined by the big tech players. It's a stand-alone product that aims to let anyone send you videos, free or with a subscription. That seems like a simple enough idea, and, weirdly enough, it actually works.