Roku announced Monday that, working with TV manufacturers Hisense and TCL, it will ship Roku TVs in fall 2014. Roku TV will combine linear television with 1200 Internet channels in a unified experience. Six models will be available with screen sizes from 32” to 55”, and all will be controlled with either a simple 20 button remote or with a smartphone using the Roku app.
Roku has created Roku TV as a reference platform based around a Sigma TV chipset. OEMs receive the TV and remote designs and a complete software platform to manage all aspects of the TV experience. The platform can access all of the channels available through the Roku channel store. OEMs are responsible for building and marketing the TVs, while Roku is responsible for software and streaming channel updates. Pricing will be determined by the manufacturer.
I spoke with Jim Funk, head of Product Management for Roku, about the announcement and he told me that Roku TV will allow smaller TV OEMs to keep up with the big manufacturers smart TV features. This has been a real problem for smaller manufacturers, as I pointed out just last week. In some respects, Roku TV overleaps all existing TV OEM smart TVs since no manufacturer can match the breadth of content available through Roku. And Mr. Funk confirmed it was the company’s intention to make every channel available through the Roku STB also available through Roku TV.
One of the biggest differences between Roku TV and other smart TVs is that there is no separate “Internet portal”. The Roku interface is the native menu of the television. A consumer goes to the same screen to watch television as they do to watch movies on Amazon Prime.
Another difference is that the company is pushing OEMs to embrace a vastly simplified remote. Mr. Funk told me the reference remote has just 20 buttons, rather than the usual 50 or so. Gone are all the number buttons and rarely used features like picture-in-picture and SAP. Unlike the Roku remote, the Roku TV reference remote does not include gyroscopic functionality. Games requiring this ability, like Angry Birds, will not work on Roku TVs.
Given the success of Chromecast and its reliance on “casting” videos to the TV via a mobile device, it’s no surprise that Roku TV will also support this functionality. In a recent software update, Roku STBs acquired support for DIAL (Discovery and Launch), allowing mobile clients like Netflix to play a video directly on the TV. Mr. Funk confirmed that this functionality will be included with Roku TV.
One interesting decision is that the Roku TV will not include a TV guide. Given that the vast majority of TV homes in the U.S. use a pay-TV STB, this is no great loss. However, if the TVs are sold in other markets like Europe with a much stronger free-to-air audience, this could be a problem.
Could Roku TV emerge as a unifying platform for connected TVs? While it is far too early to tell, there is no question the horrendous fragmentation in the market cannot go on. One thing is for sure, with 8M Roku STBs sold, the company’s interface and approach certainly seem to resonate with consumers.
Why it matters
Smaller TV manufacturers have been unable to keep up with the features and content breadth available from the likes of Samsung and LG.
The failure of Google TV, and the company’s subsequent focus on Chromecast, removed one of the best options for smaller TV manufacturers.
Roku TV more than fills the void providing access to a vast array of content and a proven user interface.