TiVo cofounders Michael Ramsay and Jim Barton liberated TV viewers from the vagaries of network scheduling by allowing them to watch programs when they wanted, not when they happened to be on. Now the two have a new streaming-TV device—a $49 box called Qplay—whose main selling point seems to be that it recreates the passive viewing experience of channel-surfing.
Currently, streaming video first requires people to figure out what they actually want to watch, which can mean navigating menus or typing search terms with a remote control (basically, not fun). By contrast, standard broadcast or cable TV are ideal for letting couch potatoes veg out in front of the boob tube.
Qplay—which had its "early adopter" launch yesterday—aims to fill the gap between streaming and traditional TV.
You Q, I Q, We All Q
Ramsay and Barton know how to make a popular television product. Seventeen years ago, they founded the company that became TiVo, maker of the black set-top boxes that practically invented modern DVR and time-shifting live television.
In 2012, the duo moved on to streaming by founding Qplay. Resembling a small external hard drive or a thick smartphone, the HDMI gadget delivers online video to the TV much the way Roku, Apple TV, game consoles and, perhaps especially, Google's Chromecast do.
Google’s streaming stick is still Amazon's incumbent top-selling electronic, and Qplay begs an obvious comparison to it and its "casting" feature. Qplay pulls video from the Internet, but uses a mobile device as the sole remote control—at this moment, just the iPad. It also offers auto-play TV playlists, similar to YouTube’s TV Queue feature on the Chromecast.
But there are some key differences. Qplay's secret weapon may be those playlists, or "Qs." Users can build their own, but they can also watch someone else's Q or let the service automatically generate one based on their Facebook profile or information from other social accounts.
In the real world, that might look like a streaming channel full of your friends' shared videos, with one playing right after the next. The viewer doesn't have to search or browser for this to happen. (Therein lies the "passive" part of this scenario.)
Your channel can also stream direct to the iPad, letting you take your TV station on the go.
Qplay calls its debut an “early adopter” launch for a reason: The company makes it clear that Qplay is a work in progress, and early customers are essentially beta testing the product.
If planned growth is in the cards, that's a good thing. The gadget sorely needs it, as only six sites work with Qplay right now—and none of them are premium services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant, HBO GO or MLB.tv. Only YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, Twitter, Vine and Instagram work with Qplay at the moment.
Via a PR representative, Ramsay confirmed to me that the company is working to bring players like Netflix into the fold, which is crucial if it wants to compete.
I also hope it's expanding its software compatibility. Right now, the iPad app is only one available. The cofounder explained to me that the tablet's popularity drove the decision, but it's still a curious choice, considering the device runs on Android. However, Qplay does plan to work with "a number of additional mobile devices" soon, Ramsay said. Further out, the company wants to add live TV, DVR functions and a unified queue for videos from various services.
It’s too early to know if Qplay can break through the streaming TV noise and give Chromecast a run for its money. In its current state, it can’t. It's a little more expensive than Google's $35 dongle, and it offers a meager streaming lineup in comparison. However, Qplay does offer an interesting premise that's unique in the market right now. And if anyone can reshape streaming, perhaps it's the dynamic duo that already succeeded in reinventing TV viewing.