In what’s shaping up to be the next big entertainment-meets-technology battleground, consumers are being presented with ever more ways to connect their television sets to the Internet.
This week, Roku, a company based in Saratoga, California, launched a new lineup of video players designed to stream high-definition content from Internet destinations such as Netflix, Amazon, and Pandora. The cost will be $60 for a basic player and $100 for one that offers a variety of ways to connect to other devices. Both are equipped for high-definition playback.
Roku was one of the first companies to stream Internet content to televisions; it released its first video player in May 2008. Since then, the market for Internet-connected set-top boxes for televisions has become much more crowded. Competition is intense because, along with free shows and clips, the Internet can be used to deliver premium, cable-like content. An Internet-connected set-top box can also be used to deliver ads that are closely tailored to viewing habits. “People are zeroing in on the same answer from multiple directions,” says David Krall, Roku’s president.
Many electronics companies sell televisions that can connect directly to the Internet, and last month Apple announced a new version of its set-top device, Apple TV, that will be considerably cheaper ($99 instead of $229) and sleeker, and will let viewers rent episodes of popular TV shows for 99 cents each. Boxee, a startup based in New York, is taking preorders for the new version of its Internet streaming device, which offers a wealth of free Internet content and a slick user interface. Even Google has decided it wants a slice of the television business, announcing a set-top box and service that is expected to launch later this year.
Roku has about 700,000 users–far fewer than the number of Apple iTunes users out there–but the company hopes to attract users by offering lower-cost hardware and high performance.
Roku president Krall believes that users will eventually be able to access any sort of content on any device. He also foresees “the end of linear programming,” when users no longer think about what time a show is broadcast, since they’ll always be able to get it on demand. Users may also become less interested in owning or recording shows and movies, since they’ll be able to stream them easily to any device. But for this to happen, several technical and legal problems will have to be overcome.
Networks have historically been reluctant to provide the most sought-after TV shows and movies to Internet-connected set-top boxes. They are worried that allowing consumers to watch content for free or pay low prices for individual shows will reduce other revenues. This sort of licensing problem is why the Internet TV site Hulu has attempted to block Boxee from pulling its content onto users’ television screens. Roku only delivers content that’s already been licensed for all screens, such as Netflix’s streaming video.