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Protocol Next Up
Defining the future of tech and entertainment with Janko Roettgers.

How Amazon, Google and Roku are shaking up streaming

How Amazon, Google and Roku are shaking up streaming

Good morning, and welcome to Protocol Next Up, a weekly newsletter about the future of technology and entertainment. Every week, topics range from AR and VR to smart speakers and TVs, from companies trying to own the next big thing to regulators keeping an eye who's seizing control of the industry. Let me know what you think by emailing janko@protocol.com, and please forward it to your friends and colleagues if you like it!

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The Big Story

Five things this year's streaming devices teach us about the future

It's been a busy couple of days for anyone tracking streaming devices. First, Amazon released its newest Fire TV sticks last week. On Monday, Roku followed with its fall update, and Wednesday, Google unveiled its latest Chromecast streaming adapter.

I've covered some of the news on Protocol already. But taken together, the products released by these three companies tell us a lot about where consumer electronics and entertainment services are going.

Here are five notable trends:

Free TV rules. The streaming wars narrative is dominated by the competition between Netflix, Disney+ and HBO Max, but consumers clearly love free services as well. Benefitting from the associated ad revenue, streaming device makers have embraced this trend. Case in point: The remote for Amazon's latest Fire TV Stick Lite comes with a dedicated button for Amazon's live TV guide, which features free live streaming TV channels from Pluto and other services.

TV and audio are growing together. Sound bars and streaming sticks have become quintessential accessories for many TV owners. So why not combine both in a single device? Roku, Amazon and Google all have tried this in the past, with mixed success.

This year, Roku is back with an interesting proposition: Just 14 inches wide, and retailing for a mere $130, the Streambar is an ultracompact sound bar with integrated Roku video streaming adapter. And it's not just small to fit into everyone's living room. While past streaming sound bars were placed in the audio section of retail chains, this one will be stocked right next to the Apple TV, Fire TV and all the rest. This effectively turns the device's value proposition on its head. Instead of selling a sound bar with built-in streamer, Roku is turning audio into an add-on for cord cutters.

Discovery is having a moment. Device makers have long talked about universal search as a way to find movies across the silos of individual apps. However, participation from streaming services has been spotty, implementations have been lacking, and frankly, searching on TVs has never been a great experience. Voice has helped with that a bit, but Google's new Chromecast signals a more fundamental shift from search to discovery.

Instead of putting the burden on consumers to search for specific titles, the device's Google TV experience recommends categories of movies and shows right on the home screen. The company even flexes some of its search muscles for this, with one row highlighting movies that are currently trending on Google.

Sustainability gets real. Remember the horror stories about cable boxes using more electricity than a fridge? The move to small streaming sticks has arguably helped to save a lot of electricity, but Amazon is now going even further: The company not only announced a new low-power mode for Fire TV devices last week, but also committed to offsetting the electricity of all consumer electronics devices it sells with wind and solar farms.

Dongles are here to stay. Virtually every TV ships with apps for Netflix, Hulu and YouTube these days, and a growing number of these smart TVs run operating systems from Roku, Amazon and Google. Still, consumers only buy a new TV every few years, and dongles are a much faster and cheaper way to add new features. "The dongle market actually continues to grow," Google Nest VP and GM Rishi Chandra recently told me.

The cheap streaming sticks also enable companies to own the customer relationship and not share any spotlight (or even revenue) with TV makers. That's why we'll likely see new dongles for years to come.

Overheard

"We are at the end of a cycle. There's nothing new to add to phones, speakers and TV. Most of the new features … are processed in the cloud." Tech entrepreneur Tariq Krim, responding to this week's Google hardware announcements.

"The Google Chromecast is so good it basically makes the Apple TV a $180 Ted Lasso streamer." The Verge's Dan Seifert throwing shade at Apple's pricey streaming box.

"Alexa, give me a random business name." Amazon's VP of Entertainment Devices and Services Marc Whitten, joking about how his team comes up with the names for shell companies used for Amazon's FCC filings — a topic I've been obsessed with for some time.

A MESSAGE FROM ROKU

Roku

Introducing the OneView Ad Platform. From Roku.

A single platform for marketers and content owners to reach more cord cutters and measure performance using TV identity data from the No. 1 TV streaming platform in the US. Advertisers can manage their entire campaigns – including OTT, linear TV, omnichannel, and more – all in one place.

Learn More

Watch Out

Shake that thing: Amazon adds motion to smart display apps

Amazon's new Echo Show smart display, which the company announced last week, has a few tricks up its sleeve that could make voice and video experiences a lot more interesting. The device, which can currently be preordered for $250, comes with a swivel display capable of rotating 360 degrees around its speaker base.

On-device computer vision and far-field mics will track where you are in the room, and the swivel display automatically follows along. Imagine putting it on your kitchen island, for instance. You'll be able to start a video call while at the stove and stay in frame while walking to the fridge on the other side of the room.

But there's more: Amazon is also making APIs for motion-capable skills available to developers. That way, Alexa skills can respond to you walking out of frame. Developers can also add motion as an input mechanism to their skills, and for instance prompt users to follow the display to advance a game. Think hide-and-seek, but with your smart display.

Some of the skills that will gain support for Echo Show 10 motion include "Jeopardy," "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," "Comedy Central Stand-Up," "Song Quiz" and "How to Train Your Dragon," according to an Amazon developer blog post.

Amazon isn't the only company to play with novel input paradigms for smart displays.

  • Facebook's Portal displays use AR effects for interactive storytime and AR games, and the company recently extended its SparkAR platform to let AR developers build visual effects for Portal devices.
  • The original Google Home, which doesn't have a camera, uses ultrasonic audio to sense when someone approaches the device, and then change font sizes and information density. However, there's no way for developers to integrate this into their experiences yet.

For now, Echo Show 10 is the only device that integrates motion, and Amazon is banking on developers to have some fun with the novelty factor. In addition to smooth swivel motions, the display can also abruptly move back and forth or shake.

An Amazon spokesperson told me that the company will make additional choreographed motions available over time, and I'm pretty curious how developers will make use of motion. Speaking of: Amazon is scheduled to demonstrate this and other new features to the developer community on Oct. 15, and the company will award $100,000 to developers with its "Beyond Voice" Alexa challenge next month.

Fast Forward

Sonos sues Google over additional patents. The fight between the two companies continues with another legal salvo.

On Protocol: Roku moves further beyond hardware with its new mobile app. The new app is targeting users who don't own a Roku streaming device or TV.

Disney reduced the carbon footprint of "The Mandalorian" with virtual production. Using ILMxLab's virtual production tools allowed Disney to reduce carbon emissions by 30 tons.

On Protocol: Luna, Amazon's bet on game streaming, is all about channel subscriptions. Amazon's cloud gaming service has been inspired by its uber-successful video subscription marketplace.

SideQuest raises $650,000 and announces developer program. The alternative app store for Facebook's Quest VR headset has big plans for the future.

Disney+ adds watch party feature. The new "GroupWatch" function allows up to seven subscribers to watch together, but doesn't offer a chat functionality yet.

HP has built a VR headset with face and eye tracking. The HP Reverb G2 Omnicept Edition clearly isn't meant as a consumer device, but it could be an interesting tool for developers, or even location-based VR centers, once consumers are willing to give those a go again.

Drew Barrymore's new talk show uses real-time visual effects for social distancing. Turns out her talk show guests aren't actually in the same room. What's next, actors not doing their own stunts anymore?

Auf Wiedersehen

I wrote a good chunk of this newsletter on Tuesday, which happened to be National Coffee Day. It's a holiday I wholeheartedly can get behind, but it also made me wonder whether there are any other notable arbitrary holidays in our future. Good news: There's plenty to choose from, according to Nationaldaycalendar.com. Oct. 2, for instance, is National Product Misting Day, but also National Body Language Day. Oct. 6 is National Eat Fruit At Work Day, which, COVID and all, should probably just be called Fruit Day this year. Speaking of which: 2020 really should have its own set of made-up holidays. National Change Your Zoom Background Day, anyone? Or how about a National Don't Forget to Take A Shower Day? Let me know about your favorite made-up holiday, and otherwise until next Thursday — or as I like to call it: National What Day Is It Anyway Day.

A MESSAGE FROM ROKU

Roku

Introducing the OneView Ad Platform. From Roku.

A single platform for marketers and content owners to reach more cord cutters and measure performance using TV identity data from the No. 1 TV streaming platform in the US. Advertisers can manage their entire campaigns – including OTT, linear TV, omnichannel, and more – all in one place.

Learn More

Thanks for reading, see you next week!

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