Why Do We Waste TVs on Video?

For Christmas Jen and I finally bought a TV after four years of distraction-less living. We finally decide it was time after countless evenings watching Hulu on my 15" laptop. We were adamant, however, that we would not buy cable. We just want a better way of watching Hulu, NetFlix, and a few other sites. To make that happen I bought the latest Roku device, Angry Birds edition.

If you aren't familiar with it, the Roku is a small box you attach to your TV with HDMI. It runs special apps that stream content over the internet and can display full HD content. The box itself is quite nice. It's super tiny, makes no noise, and uses a bluetooth remote instead of infra-red. You can also side load content from a USB stick.

For basic streaming of video from Hulu or music from Pandora the Roku works quite well. I wish the interface was a bit prettier and had smoother animation, but it yes the job done with minimal fuss. The apps is where the device has it's most potential but also it's greatest failure.

I have long been a fan of putting apps on a TV, especially when tied to an internet based store. The concept seems so obvious that I have to assume Apple is working on this (unless they decide to just stream everything through your iPad). Apps are a good way to view video because the content provider can customize the experience, but that is just the beginning.

For most people, the nicest display in their house is the TV. It is usually centrally located and has comfortable seating. And yet we only watch video on it. This seems like a waste. Such a beautiful high resolution screen should be used for much, much more. Dynamic artwork. Video calling. Interactive picture frames. Music visualization. And of course games. The potential is endless.

So why hasn't it happened? Honestly, I don't know. The technology has been ready for a couple of years. Roku and Apple can sell their devices at a profit (or at least break even) for under $100. I think the device makers are too focused on the lure of video. That's where the sexy business model is. They all dream of being the next cable company. The company that sits between you and the content, exacting a per-use toll. This is also the *hardest* part to do. And while they waste time dicking around with video streaming rights they ignore the potential of other uses for a beautiful large screen attached to the internet.

But I digress. Back to the Roku.

The Roku has it's own app catalog (called the Channel Store) where you can get both paid and free apps. Unfortunately the selection is meager and the interface is horrible. It's a table of rows, each showing a picture of the app. When you choose an app you see a details screen where you can purchase it. This interface simply won't scale. There is no searching and few categories. The details screen has no ratings or screenshots, just the 'cover art'. And the selection of non-video apps is horrible. A few bad games and radio apps.

I'm not sure why the Roku is like this. They've solved most of the hard parts: initial setup, in app payments, device navigation, OAuth association with online services. They just don't have the apps. App development itself is fairly easy. You must use their proprietary BrightScript, but it's easy to work with. The SDK is just some command line scripts that install right to your test device. They clearly took a few pointers from webOS on how to make development easy. My only suggestion would be switching to JavaScript (and making the native sdk public).

The other thing that makes me wonder is that the features of the device haven't changed much over the past few years, and their development process seems slow. They announced their 3.0 SDK about a year ago but it only just went final, with fewer features than expected. They have Angry Birds running but only allow native development access (C + OpenGL, I'm assuming) for special developers. They promised to open it up to everyone, but nine months later they still haven't. For a startup this seems slow.

There is also a few apps that I really expect to be present and aren't. You can stream photos from FaceBook and listen to Pandora, but there is no built in app to stream music, movies, or photos from your desktop computer. Given that their main competitor, Apple, did this from day one I'm not sure why it's absent. The few 3rd party apps which do this are horrible! This is especially surprising since I would think that streaming MP3s from a network drive would be the first thing people in the open source community would do. BTW: I did try Plex but it doesn't do music. The other MP3 apps I found were amazingly slow and ugly.

So, things brings me to three questions that I can't answer:

  1. Why is Roku the way it is? Are they focusing on other things (better content deals)? Are they understaffed? What's up?
  2. Is there any interest in an app to stream music from your iTunes lib on your desktop (it would require a single click server on the computer). I'd love some help on it to make it non-ugly.
  3. Am I wrong about using modern HDTVs for non-video purposes? Is there simply no interest in this?
Talk to me about it on Twitter

Posted March 28th, 2012

Tagged: roku