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

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


Is it a platform war or a sticker war?

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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?

Stickers on boxes

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.

Your TV software will be bad in 5 years, almost guaranteed

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.

More news from The Verge

+ Up close with the Taycan, Porsche’s first electric car

Sean O’Kane attended this event and got a close look at the new Porsche Taycan, which has a base price of $150,000 and can go 0-60 in 3 seconds. I love seeing real competition for Tesla at the top end of this market. Anything that pushes the industry to make more beautiful things like this is good in my book — and maybe it’ll push the rest of the industry to move to electric more quickly, too.

+ Internet-from-space provider OneWeb says it will provide coverage to the Arctic by 2020

It seems super cool that there’s a race to provide SPACE INTERNET, but Loren Grush keeps a level head about it, as she does about all space things: 

SpaceX has already launched the first 60 satellites in its constellation, though three of the first batch failed after reaching orbit. OneWeb argues that its constellation will be deployed “significantly earlier” than other planned constellations, allowing the company to provide coverage to the Arctic sooner than other systems.

+ A bug in SpaceX’s communication system kept the company in the dark about potential satellite collision

Probably one reason Loren can keep that level head is her deep knowledge of all the issues involved in putting hundreds of satellites into orbit. Unless there’s good coordination, they crash into each other. Her report here is chock-full of interesting details. 

Ultimately, the entire situation illustrates a need for better communication, argues Merz, especially as more satellites are launched into space by SpaceX and others. Companies like OneWeb and Amazon have also proposed sending hundreds to thousands of satellites into orbit to beam internet connectivity to the Earth below. “I think trying to solve these things via email is not the future,” says Merz. “We should have something that is getting more efficient.”

+ Android 10 review: new gestures, dark theme, and privacy improvements

Here’s my review of Android 10. My most controversial opinion is that Google made the right trade offs with the gestures. It doesn’t matter, though, people will be unhappy. I think it’s in part because the paradox of choice between gestures and buttons will mean lots of users will end up feeling disappointed no matter which one they choose.

+ Asus announces ROG Phone II Ultimate Edition with 1TB of storage 

I have a confession: I get gaming PCs but I don’t get gaming phones. If you are a hardcore gamer who needs this kind of phone to genuinely improve your performance and experience of games, please email me and tell me about it - . If you just like the idea of this phone because it has The Most Specs: carry on, you do you, this thing looks good.

+ Light Phone 2: the high hopes of the low-tech phone 

Here is a phone on the very opposite end of the spectrum from the ROG. It might get lost in the crush of IFA news, but you shouldn’t miss this feature by Verge expat Michael Zelenko.

Logitech’s MX Master 3 makes the best mouse even better 

There are two kinds of people. People that squeal when they see there’s an heir to the Great Logitech MX Master Mouse and people that squeal when they see it uses USB-C instead of Mini-USB. Just those two kinds, right? I couldn’t imagine NOT squealing with joy in some way upon seeing this mouse, but maybe such a person exists.

+ Kobo’s new Libra H20 is like a cheaper Kindle Oasis 

I really (and I mean really) love that Kobo exists. It consistently has different and often better ideas about how to make e-readers than Amazon does. And it’s often cheaper and new models are released more often. It’s great competition -- or it would be if Kindle owners weren’t locked in to their Kindle libraries :(