Last year, when Roku first announced plans for its Streaming Stick — which compresses the features of a Roku Web TV box into a thumb-drive-sized, wireless dongle — it came with a major catch: The MHL-compatible device didn’t work with many TV sets.
Roku can finally add a few more to the list. At CES the startup is showing off six “Roku Ready” TV partners, including Coby, Harmon Kardon and Westinghouse Digital. Basically, “smart TVs” from these manufacturers are certified to work with the Roku Streaming Stick, joining Roku’s existing partners, including Hitachi and Best Buy’s Insignia brand.
But even as Roku is arranging more hardware partners, it’s looking beyond the boxes and the stick.
“It’s part of a bigger strategy to integrate Roku into more hardware, and in many cases it will be the stick bundled with a smart TV,” Anthony Wood, Roku’s founder and CEO, said in an interview. “We could get to the point where Roku is integrated directly into TVs.”
Roku sees itself as not just as a set-top box maker, but as the content platform provider for a wide range of smart TVs — which is why its app offerings, or “channels,” as Roku calls them — are just as important as its hardware partners.
The company just added TWC TV, the Time Warner Cable authentication app, Dish TV, Vevo and Spotify to its list of 700-plus channels that already include Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, MLB.TV and Pandora. (But still no YouTube!)
Wood claims that Roku streamed more than a billion hours of video last year, making Roku the No. 1 set-top box for apps like Netflix and Hulu.
To be clear, when it comes to non-gaming set-top boxes, Apple’s “hobby” has the edge. Roku likes to point out that it splits the market 50/50 with Apple TV, but Roku has sold just under five million units, while on Apple’s last earnings call, CEO Tim Cook said the company had sold 1.3 million units in the fourth quarter, and five million for the 2012 fiscal year.
Also, Roku has put itself in a kind of awkward phase by going with the MHL standard for the Streaming Stick, an interim device that could well serve those looking for cheap TV upgrades. More MHL-certified TVs will hit the market this year. And the technology does allow for: a) wire-free charging; and b) a universal remote, two excellent features. But until this standard spreads further, the market is limited for the nifty stick.
Lastly, Roku faces another competitor on the OEM side: Google. The search giant made some embarrassing missteps in its early attempts at Google TV hardware, but it keeps throwing different devices at the wall to see what sticks, and it is working with electronics companies to have the Google TV platform installed right inside TVs — beating Roku to the punch, at least for now.
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