Entertainment

Plex wants to become the first app you open on your TV every day

With 13 million monthly active users and counting, Plex is adding deep links to other streaming services. Will the company succeed where others failed?

Plex

Universal search and discovery have long been a holy grail for the streaming industry, but platform operators' efforts have been held back by industry power struggles.

Image: Plex

Plex has an audacious plan to become the daily go-to app for everyone’s streaming needs: The media center app rolled out new universal search, watchlist and discovery features Tuesday that are designed to help people find and keep track of all of the shows and movies available across a growing universe of streaming services.

“The app dance, going from app to app to find something to watch, just doesn’t make any sense,” said Plex’s senior product and design director, Jason Williams. Instead, Williams hopes that people will just open Plex to browse everything that’s new on various streaming services, and then follow deep links to directly launch playback on Netflix, Hulu or anywhere else.

“You’re going to open up Plex every day,” Williams said. “It’s going to be your trusted source.”

Universal search and discovery have long been a holy grail for the streaming industry, but efforts by platform operators to integrate these types of features directly into the smart TV home screen have been held back by industry power struggles. Plex hopes it can avert some of those issues, and is betting on the ingenuity of its power users to help out along the way.

Plex has been teasing plans for its universal watchlist for some time on its website, as Protocol was first to report in December. The new app integration goes further and bridges people’s personal media libraries with all the content available across the streaming universe. Movies recorded with Plex’s DVR show up alongside streaming titles from Netflix as well as Plex’s own free, ad-supported movie library, and registered users can select the services they subscribe to as their default results. People can also add a movie or show to their watchlist and then get notified when it appears on a streaming service they subscribe to, or keep access to it even if it moves from one service to another.

In addition to universal search and a universal watchlist across multiple streaming services as well as personal media, Plex is also launching a dedicated discovery section in its app that highlights new titles on Netflix and other services. Over time, the company plans to further personalize these recommendations by adding social features and more. Also planned for the coming months: the integration of transactional VOD content, aka paid movies and shows.

All of this is part of Plex’s plan to become a one-stop shop for all things streaming media. To facilitate this, Plex raised $50 million in funding last year; the company followed up with another $20 million in funding earlier this year.

That money has helped to build out its ad-supported video platform, which in turn has led to significant growth on all fronts. The company grew its revenue by 40% last year, CEO Keith Valory told Protocol, and is looking to further accelerate that growth this year. Plex is now seeing 13 million monthly active users, with Valory forecasting user growth of 40% to 50% in 2022. “From a business standpoint, things have never been better,” he said.

Plex’s primary revenue driver has long been its “Plex Pass” membership program, which gives subscribers access to advanced features. Valory said that this part of its business would continue to be very important for the company, but ad-supported video has clearly been the biggest growth engine as of late. “In 2022, ad-supported revenue will easily surpass Plex Pass revenue,” Valory said.

Plex is not alone with the idea of supercharging streaming with universal search and discovery. Smart TV platform operators like Amazon and Google are increasingly betting on content-forward interfaces that replace app icons with individual movies and TV shows; Roku, Apple, Samsung and others have been offering universal search on their respective platforms as well.

However, these implementations often live and die with the business relationships of these respective platforms — business relationships that tend to break down every so often as companies battle for streaming supremacy. Owners of Google’s Chromecast dongle, for instance, can’t add Netflix titles to the device’s watchlist; Android TV owners can browse movies for rent through Apple’s Apple TV app, but are then being told to open their iPad to actually rent them.

Plex isn’t totally immune to those challenges. The company is still working on getting deep linking to work on Samsung and LG smart TVs, and is in talks with Roku to be allowed to do the same. But ultimately, executives hope that they will be able to work with everyone, in part because the company doesn’t operate its own streaming devices, removing the complexity of app distribution deals.

“We are a little bit of a Switzerland,” Williams said.

And if Plex does get caught up in the streaming wars, it is hoping to make use of a secret weapon: its longtime power users. Over time, Plex wants to open up its universal search, watchlist and discovery to its API, and enable developers to come up with third-party tools that Plex itself may not be able to build. “The plan is to make it a little bit more flexible than other services, and then see what the community does with it,” said Chief Product Officer Scott Olechowski.

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