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TV Wars: Inside Roku's Plan To Beat Apple, Amazon, And Google

Indomitable little Roku is attacking industry giants on every front it can. But can it remain a living-room fixture over the long haul?

With Roku CEO Anthony Wood on the phone, I barely had to ask a question before he launched into a lecture.

The gist of the interview, I said, was to learn about Roku's survival plan against Apple, Google, and Amazon. For years, the company has sold a popular line of TV set-top boxes for watching services like Netflix and Hulu on televisions. But while Roku has the largest channel selection and can reasonably boast of having the simplest interface and most devoted users, the competition is making gains in all those areas. What's to prevent the tech industry's titans from crowding out a small company such as Roku?

Roku founder and CEO Anthony Wood

Wood clearly gets this question a lot, as he immediately dived into a methodical rundown of every aspect of Roku's business, picking apart potential threats along the way. He never gave the impression that Roku is any sort of underdog, and argues convincingly that the company is on solid strategic footing.

And he has reason to be confident: He's been in this industry a long time, having founded ReplayTV, the company which, along with its more famous rival TiVo, gave us the DVR. And since Roku launched its first streaming video player in 2008—a project spun out by Netflix so as not to jeopardize other hardware partnerships—it's seen a nonstop parade of would-be rivals come and go. Along the way, there have been plenty of claims of inevitable doom; even The New York Times's story on the launch of the first Roku box in 2008 raised the idea that it might be in trouble as bigger companies such as HP entered the market.

Despite all the competition and skepticism, Roku has just kept humming along; no company has done more to make Internet TV in the living room a reality. Still, even the best strategies have caveats. And in an online video business that's so reliant on agreements and alliances, Roku's long-term security is far from guaranteed.

Roku 3 comes with headphones.

Fighting On Multiple Fronts

Roku wants to be more than just a set-top box company. While its puck-shaped media streamers (starting at $50) and $40 Streaming Stick are a "healthy gross margin business," Wood says, they're not the only way that Roku makes money.

Beyond its own hardware, Roku has started to license its software to television makers. The first Roku TVs arrived in 2014 from Chinese manufacturers HiSense and TCL, and this year, Sharp and Best Buy's Insignia house brand jumped on board. Wood notes that Insignia alone accounts for 8% of TV sales in the U.S., and TV licensing as a whole is the fastest-growing segment of Roku's business. Wood expects it to overtake set-top boxes in a "small handful of years" as all but the biggest players, such as Samsung, start licensing software. "It's just a tremendous amount of work, and it's more than any one company who just has one TV can do," he says.

Roku 3, what's in the box

Roku has also placed a side bet on providing white-labeled software and hardware to pay TV providers. The assumption is that the cable and satellite companies of today will offer Internet-based video in the future, and Roku is standing by with branded hardware and software, a channel store, and free over-the-air updates. So far, Roku's main ally on this front is Sky, whose "Roku Powered" Sky Online TV boxes are available in several European countries. (Sky is also one of Roku's investors.)

With each of these models, Roku isn't just collecting revenue from hardware and licensing. It's also making money on content. When a Roku user rents a movie from Amazon Instant Video or Vudu, or signs up for a subscription video service, Roku gets a cut. For ad-supported apps, Roku also controls a percentage of the ad inventory, so it can sell its own targeted advertisements. Even the app-specific buttons on Roku's remote controls and the promotional tiles on Roku's home screen are sources of revenue. "All the content that flows through our platforms, we participate in the economics in some way," Wood says.

A Sharp TV running Roku software

Beyond just creating more revenue streams, having all these business models gives Roku better answers for how it'll compete with its well-heeled rivals.

Apple, for example, is beating Roku in worldwide set-top box sales, but doesn't license its software to television makers. That gives Roku a chance to be the operating system for televisions, the same way that Android is the market share leader for phones and tablets.

Roku's main competitor on the TV licensing front is Google, whose Android TV platform is popping up on televisions from Sony, Sharp, and Philips. Still, Wood believes Roku will win out through its lower cost structure. All Roku TVs today use the same chips and proprietary technology to help scale across multiple televisions. This brings costs down, and it also helps Roku to manage software updates instead of pushing those duties onto TV vendors. "That's the main reason we're getting all the volume TV deals, like Insignia and TCL, whereas Android is getting all the higher-end, niche TV businesses like Sony," Wood says.

As for Amazon, Wood simply points to Roku's wider availability in brick-and-mortar stores, some of which are wary of supporting an online retailer that's clearly out to crush them. "Amazon built a competing product in Fire TV, but 85% of our sales are in storefronts that will never carry Fire TV," Wood says. "Walmart, for example, is our biggest retailer."

The Streaming Secret Sauce

Despite all these efforts, Roku doesn't have the best-selling TV platform. Those honors go to Apple TV and to Google's $35 Chromecast dongle. But Roku likes to cite an NPD study—which Roku itself commissioned—that says its set-tops account for more streaming hours in the United States than Apple TV, Chromecast, and Fire TV combined.

In other words, Roku's users are more active, and that's largely because of the channel store. Roku how has more than 2,000 channels, both large and small, and much of the company's work involves accommodating content providers. (Apple TV, by contrast, has 60 content providers; Amazon says it has 1,600 apps and games, but it has fewer video content partners than Roku.) "We put a lot of effort into our platform, which people don't realize, but it's a big chunk of work in making sure our SDK enables the business models and features of our partners," Wood says.

For major media companies like CBS, Roku goes out of its way to get them on board, either writing their apps entirely or assisting heavily with development. That's one reason why Roku was the first set-top box to support CBS's All Access service, says Marc DeBevoise, CBS Digital Media's executive vice president and general manager. "They worked with us very closely to develop the application," DeBevoise says. "They put resources in, we put resources in, and really got it done together."

Watch ESPN on Roku

ESPN had a similar experience bringing its WatchESPN app to Roku, says Matt Murphy, ESPN's senior vice president of digital distribution. While most platforms tend to force content into templates, Roku is one of the more flexible options. The two companies worked together and came up with a channel that promotes both long-form and short-form ESPN content, and Murphy says usage has exceeded expectations.

"They've presented us with a great platform that allows us to create one of the most comprehensive experiences out there," Murphy says.

Roku content honcho Steve Shannon

Even after a channel is made, Roku's work isn't done. The next step is promotion, and Roku has several ways to put new apps in front of users, says Steve Shannon, Roku's general manager of content and services. It advertises big-name apps on its box art and in its store kiosks, and suggests apps to install during the setup process. On the home screen, Roku has a space where it can advertise apps to users, and even the video ad inventory that the company controls can be a source of promotion.

"If a content partner has particular goals for the quarter or month, they can call us and work with us to find ways to promote," Shannon says, adding that this kind of marketing benefits users as well. "It's really a big reason why our engagement is so much higher than our competition."

The result, for CBS at least, has been higher usage of its CBS News channel on Roku than on any other platform. And once Nielsen starts measuring video ads on Roku this summer, the demographic information will help CBS get paid the same way it does on traditional television. "It really does open up a more robust advertising market for our product," DeBevoise says.

Although Roku puts on the white gloves for media giants, it doesn't shut out smaller companies, and offers some fairly simple tools to help them along. If you've ever noticed that some Roku apps tend to look alike, it's because they're using the platform's cookie-cutter development mode. "The look and feel is not as polished as an app you get on another device, but that flexibility is really awesome for small development shops," says Plex CEO Keith Valory.

Plex initially took advantage of those tools to make its app, which lets people stream their media from other networked devices, but it has since created a more elaborate app. Valory praised Roku's flexibility in this regard, noting a full revamp of its app only took about five months. "For us to build an app from the ground up in that period of time is probably faster than we've done on any other platform," he says.

Plex's Roku channel

Chances are that Roku still has more levers to pull as it tries to boost usage and attract channel makers. The company's latest software update adds a feature called MyFeed, which lets users flag unreleased movies and get notified when they land on Roku. It doesn't amount to much right now, but Wood says it has major potential for promoting content across different apps.

"It's like being in retail. If you're in Best Buy or a big box store, you want to get your product placed on a shelf, but then you want to promote it," he says. "You want endcaps, you want to run ads and circulars, that sort of thing. It's the same on Roku."

Competing With Free

Clearly, Roku has happy users and happy content makers. It also has a few different revenue streams, and a plan to scale up its business. What could go wrong?

According to Dan Rayburn, an online video analyst at Frost & Sullivan, there are several possibilities. On the hardware front, Roku may eventually have to compete with free or almost-free, most likely from Amazon. The company already sells its Fire TV Stick for $40, which was cheaper than anything Roku had until a recent price cut for the Roku Streaming Stick. And at launch, Amazon ran a promotion where Prime subscribers could get the device for $19.

"As that cost drops over the next year or two, is Amazon willing to spend $5 or $10 to acquire a Prime customer? Absolutely. That's a no-brainer," Rayburn says. "How will that impact Roku's business?"

Roku realizes this, which is why it's moved into TV licensing. But Rayburn isn't convinced that TV sales will make up the volume that Roku stands to lose. To succeed in that business, Roku needs bigger brands to get on board, and there's no guarantee any of them will turn to licensing at all. (Even Wood admits that Samsung, the world's largest TV maker, is unlikely to do so.)

"It's nice that they're doing licensing on the TV side with TCL and others, but those just aren't big enough brands that are selling enough units," Rayburn says. "I mean, do you know of anyone who has a TCL TV? I don't."

Even Roku's vaunted user-friendliness could become less of a unique advantage as larger ecosystems spring up around its rival's platforms. Once you can control your television from an Android Wear smartwatch, or control your entire smart home from an Apple TV, Roku's singular focus on television could become a liability. "I don't see why somebody would pick a Roku over an Amazon or an Apple TV, when consumers really seem to be defaulting to ecosystems now, and Roku doesn't have an ecosystem of any kind," Rayburn says. (It does, however, have apps for iOS and Android.)

Meanwhile, Roku is still reliant on venture funding—it's not commenting on rumors that it's planning an IPO—and is presumably unprofitable. ("At this time we choose to invest in our platform and its scale instead of profitability," the company says.) All of this makes the endgame potentially murky. An uncharitable view would be that Roku doesn't know what the future holds, which is why it's trying to grab onto whatever business models it can.

Still, there's one thing Roku has that no one else does, and that's neutrality. Every one of Roku's rivals, including Apple, Amazon, and Google, has a vested interest in their own content. That's why there's no iTunes on Fire TV, no Google Play on Apple TV, and no Amazon Prime on Android TV. It's also why, when you turn on Amazon's set-top boxes, Prime content crowds the homescreen, while other sources are mostly relegated to their own apps. Roku, by comparison, tries to be "the independent, trusted partner for our customers," Wood says. Indeed, one of Roku's biggest draws right now is the ability to watch video from Amazon Prime or Google Play without having it shoved down your throat.

As the number of sources for online video explodes over the next few years, that seems like something worth saving. Underdog or not, Roku's survival is worth rooting for.

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