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IFA Day 1: Amazon Fire TV, Roku, and the battle for your TV

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Is it a platform war or a sticker war?

Perhaps the biggest news out of IFA so far is that Amazon has partnered with Grundig, JVC, and Toshiba to launch a ton of new televisions that run Amazon’s Fire TV software. The Grundig models (not coming to the US) are particularly interesting, as they’re the first with OLED, one of which is fitted with far-field microphones so you can speak to Alexa directly on your TV without needing another device.

I say it was “perhaps” the biggest because I was initially torn between two feelings about the import of this news. The first thought was “Ho Hum more midrange TVs that run Fire TV.”

The second thought was “Wow Roku was just starting to see some success with the strategy of getting its software directly on TVs and here comes Amazon, hard charging into a place where Roku was feeling good.” This could be yet another front in the Streaming Wars (it’s like Star Wars with fewer lightsabers, but roughly the same number of Sith Lords).

Let’s examine the second feeling a little more closely.

It’s like Roku was finally starting to get a Chopin tune on the piano right and all of the sudden an 800 pound gorilla (that would be Amazon) sits down on the bench and starts pounding out Rachmaninoff. This is a fight, one you shouldn’t get distracted from by whatever drama is happening over in Apple TV+ land because Roku and Amazon ship way more devices and are used by way more consumers.

Samsung and LG and Sony will continue to do whatever they want to do on their TV platforms, but literally every other TV maker (and heck, maybe Sony too someday) is up for grabs. That makes it a knock-down, drag out ecosystem war where Amazon uses its unrelated market powers to dominate and Roku hangs on for dear life by promising to be the neutral Switzerland of TV platforms.

Under this reading, you can see that Amazon and Roku aren’t just fighting on TV turf, either. One of the weirdest trends of the year that I expected to die before taking off has ...taken off. That would be selling soundbars with TV software on them. Anker is putting Fire TV in a soundbar for the first time, and Roku is making a new Smart Soundbar and Wireless Subwoofer.

Now the fight to TV platform dominance has moved on to soundbars and ...honestly I can’t keep up the feeling that this is a real platform battle, at least in the sense we usually think of it.

Is it a good idea to put your TV software in your soundbar? It might be if your current TV software sucks. Then again, it might be a better idea to just get the soundbar that’s right for your room and your budget and then go ahead and buy a TV stick. Both Roku and Amazon make them!

I am a sucker for smashing two different tech products together, but the soundbar thing seems to cross a line into silliness, at least when you look at it from the traditional platform war lens. What is the value that TV makers, soundbar makers, Amazon, and Roku are getting out of all this integration, anyway?

The answer is super obvious if you stop thinking of this as a platform war and start thinking of it as stickers on boxes. For hardware manufacturers, it’s a chance to get a small edge over the competition while saving some money on software development. A TV that runs Roku or Fire TV is more likely to appeal to a consumer than one that doesn’t. It’s a sticker on a box.

For Amazon and Roku, it’s a chance to just make more money (by selling subscriptions and also probably by tracking you). As Jon Porter says in the video above, “In the future you’ll buy a product that you need, and it just so happens to have Amazon services attached to it.”

It honestly might not be much more than that, because there’s a huge difference between the market for TVs and the market for other platforms: competition.

There are just a lot of different companies making and selling big slabs of glass that create moving pictures. I don’t foresee all of those different companies ceding the several TV platforms they use (Tizen, webOS, Fire TV, Roku, Android TV, whatever weird thing Vizio runs) anytime soon, so it’s harder for an 800 pound gorilla to take over or for an Apple/Android style duopoly to form.

What software runs on all these TVs matters — but only to a certain extent. Do you really believe that the TV software you’re using now is going to be any good in three to five years? How about 10? You could seriously keep your TV for that long. Winning today doesn’t mean you’ve established an unassailable, decades-long dominance.

If you decide you hate your TV’s software in a year or five, you can buy a cheap stick running whatever OS you want and just move on. (Unless you want tvOS — Apple still charges a premium for its box.) Amazon stomping into Roku’s growing TV business should be scary for Roku, but only if Fire TV suddenly becomes so good that consumers make software their first priority in buying a TV.

Nobody does that — or at least, nobody should do that. Which means that the primary way TVs compete is on price, size, and hardware features. Sure, bad software might drive some users away, but even the best software feels more like a bonus than a reason to buy. It’s a sticker on the box. Amazon and Roku both want to be that sticker — lucky for both of them there are a lot of different boxes.


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