When Netflix teased us last month with news that it had secured three more set-top box partners in addition to LG, we speculated as to who they might be. “It’s our bet that we’ll see Netflix compatibility added to a number of media streamers, such as those produced by D-Link and Linksys”, we proclaimed with confidence.
Close but no cigar.
Today Netflix announced that Roku, best known for its line of networked audio players, has become the first company to offer a dedicated set-top box designed to bring Netflix’s ‘Watch Now’ Internet TV service to the television.
Dubbed “The Netflix Player by Roku“, the $99.99 box plugs into a television via a range of ports including HDMI, Component and S-Video, along with analog or digital optical for sound. To connect to Netflix’s streaming servers over the Internet, both Ethernet and WiFi are offered. No hard drive is included, however, since Netflix uses streaming rather than downloads to deliver online video. Configuring the player sounds simple enough: just log-in to your wireless network (if required) and then enter your Netflix account details.
Next is where it gets interesting. For the most part, movie selection doesn’t take place via the television. Instead, users browse the Netflix website on their PC to cue up movies ready for streaming, as they already do when ordering DVDs through the mail. Any cued movies available on ‘Watch Now’ then automatically show up on the Netflix Player ready to be enjoyed on the television. The theory is that a “10 foot User Interface” (TV) isn’t the best for browsing and discovering content from thousands of offerings, compared with the “2 foot UI” of the PC.
Content-wise, Roku’s Netflix Player is only as good as the existing ‘Watch Now’ service which currently offers 10,000 movies and TV episodes – mostly older back catalog stuff – compared to the 100,000 titles available via DVD. The limited content could hold back adoption, although access to the service (aside from the price of the Roku box itself) doesn’t cost any more on top of an existing ‘unlimited’ Netflix subscription.
In hindsight we shouldn’t be all that surprised that Roku has become the first company to deliver a Netflix set-top box. Roku founder Anthony Wood left to join Netflix last April and helped devise the company’s Internet TV strategy, only to return to Roku after Netflix decided to partner with hardware manufacturers instead of developing a set-top box of its own. At the same time, Netflix made a $6 million investment in Roku, reports AP.
A Netflix set-top box and Internet TV service competes directly with Apple’s own AppleTV/iTunes product, along with startup Vudu. However, a bigger threat to all consumer facing set-top boxes are the somewhat overpriced on-demand services from cable and telcos/IPTV providers, who will be feeling the pressure to respond.