Steve Effros

Commentary by Steve Effros

For those of us who spend our time trying to work through the implications of all the new technologies, business plans and devices that continually flood the video market it’s been an extraordinarily busy time.

Amazon, Google, Apple and Roku all trumpeted new television viewing devices in the last month. It’s become clear that all four companies have very different ideas of what’s important and what the consumer wants. It’s also clear that the competition in the “box” marketplace has become fierce, sometimes because of the features offered themselves, and sometimes because the “box” is considered as almost an afterthought to the real objective of offering services or reinforcing a “walled garden” business plan.

I’ll be working my way through all the new devices as they become available, and it’ll be some time before any “winners” can be declared, if at all. The reason is that the market, however we want to describe it, is going in so many different directions at once.

A few initial reactions; Google’s Chromecast isn’t really a box at all. It’s a transport device that links to a far more expensive smart phone or tablet which does the heavy lifting. This has two advantages, both for Google. First, the device itself is about 1/3 the cost of its competitors, or at least that’s how it appears to the consumer. That’s not true, of course, because that device relies on another multi-hundred dollar device, your phone in many cases, in order to make it work. But it’s clever obfuscation, and it works well and is almost totally focused on web interaction. The fight here, as I’ve been mentioning, is the ability to aggregate data and become the “gateway” for the consumer. That’s what they’re really interested in, not program delivery.

The Amazon Fire TV box has beefed itself up so that it can process at the speeds Roku has been doing for some time now. Unlike Chromecast, Fire TV and the new Roku 4 are designed for the alleged “future” of 4K. The Apple TV box is not. But since I question the whole 4K push until it’s linked with HDR, high dynamic range video, which is a true eye-popper for the consumer market, I don’t know if that makes much difference. Both Amazon and Roku are making major strides in voice control, which is neat, but still limited.

Amazon is linking its voice recognition “Alexa” system with the TV box. I really enjoy and use my Amazon Echo speaker (with Alexa) a lot, but not everything flows over to the new TV box, so we will have to wait and see whether that “added value” is significant. Apple’s box is not available yet, but claims to have a great idea baked in; flip the remote and the film backs up 30 seconds and replays with closed captioning turned on for those of us who just couldn’t catch the dialog! Now that would be great, if it works. We’ll see.

Competition on what the video “boxes” should do is exploding. It’s just part of a much bigger picture, and the notion that the government (read FCC) should continue to get involved and define what an MVPD box must be, and how it must operate is pure foolishness. What’s happening now is the competition has moved into entirely new realms. Consumers may wind up confused, and paying more for multiple new devices, just like yearly releases of cell phones, but there’s a lot of thinking going on inside the box!

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