With all the talk surrounding Apple’s rumoured television set, it’s easy to glance over the other companies tackling the so-called “Smart TV” space.Of all the connected TVs, Blu-Ray players, Google TV boxes, video game consoles, etc., Roku has one of the most popular devices out there.
And they say they’re just barely beating Apple in the space, at least in terms of how many boxes they’ve sold so far in the U.S. (However, we couldn’t confirm specific numbers, so take that claim with a grain of salt.)
We had a chance to sit down with Roku’s CEO Anthony Wood to get a look at how the company plans to stand out in a space that seems to be getting pretty crowded all of the sudden.
Most importantly, Wood says Roku’s goal isn’t to convince people to cut the cord from their cable companies and start streaming web content instead. Unlike Boxee, which actively encourages its users to cut the cord, Wood sees Roku as a layer on top of cable that adds more on-demand content via apps like Hulu, Netflix, and Pandora.
And cable companies are pretty cool with it, Wood says, despite the fact that Roku’s internal stats show about 20% of its users cut back on cable channels and another 20% completely cancel cable. Wood hinted that Roku was in talks with companies to pipe their content through the Roku box, just like Verizon’s Fios and Comcast do through the Xbox.
So what about all those TVs that already come with apps like Hulu and Netflix built in? For example, Samsung says its new Smart TVs are “future-proof,” meaning all the apps and other web features are built in and will be updated automatically.
Wood says it’s likely TV manufacturers like Samsung can’t keep that promise. Instead, he sees people itching to upgrade their TVs every two or three years, the same way they upgrade their smartphones. As app developers turn to the living room, it’s important for the guys behind boxes like Roku, Boxee, Apple TV, etc. to beef up their hardware to offer more capabilities too.
For example, Roku’s current line of Roku 2 boxes have the ability to play games like Angry Birds and display fancy 3D interfaces for apps. The original Roku’s hardware can’t handle that. Wood sees those kind of jumps in hardware performance happening every few years, which will make people want to upgrade.
At $99 for the maxed-out Roku model, that may be doable. After all, we spend at least $200 when we upgrade our smartphones.
To make it easier to upgrade, Roku plans to launch a new Streaming Stick, which packs all of Roku’s features into a device that’s just slightly larger than a USB thumb drive. The stick plugs into the back of your TV.
Unfortunately, your TV will need a special kind of HDMI port that can provide power to the Streaming Stick. Most TVs don’t have that right now, but Roku does have a deal with Best Buy that will bundle the stick with the store’s own line of Insignia TVs. Roku is pushing for the same with other brands too.
Wood’s philosophy feels a lot different than what techies and other companies have been talking about when it comes to smart TVs.
Boxee is all about freeing yourself from cable and getting all your content online or for free over the air. If the rumours about the Apple TV turn out to be true, it’ll force a change in the way cable providers deliver content to our living room. As some have speculated, the Apple TV could make it possible for you to buy channels a la carte instead of paying the cable company one flat fee for a bunch of stuff you don’t want.
Because it all comes down to content, we’re not so sure people will be dying to make a hardware upgrade every few years as Wood claims. It’s just easier to stick with one box or one connected TV with all those streaming apps built in. As long as they can still get the video they want when they want it, the hardware is almost irrelevant.
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.