Amazon took on the big boys of streaming television at its press event in New York City Wednesday morning. On a stage decked out like a living room, the company took the wraps off its top-secret project: the much-rumored—and now very real—Amazon Fire TV.
This little box comes with a big-ticket price: $99. No matter what the presentation slides say about “Premium Products, Non Premium Prices,” a c-note is nothing to sneeze at—especially when some competitors charge half to a third of that amount.
I previously championed a lower price, but strangely enough, the company didn’t take my advice. Well, maybe that’s not a bad thing. If it cost less, it could have disappeared into a sea of increasingly cheap competition. And that would be a shame, because maybe—just maybe—this device could be a contender.
The Fire TV comes loaded with some creative features, including voice search (through the remote control), ASAP predictive streaming (which guesses what you’ll watch next and automatically starts buffering it), and gaming from the likes of Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Gameloft, Disney and others. The presentation even trotted out Minecraft, which will come to the device later this year. (Though, note that it’s the Pocket Edition.)
Granted, some of these features could use a little work. Voice search needs to cover more apps—like Netflix, for example—before it can really be handy. But I like where all this is going. At the very least, anything that gets the major streaming TV players to think about and solve everyday frustrations is a good thing. Chief among them, at least for me, is searching via a directional remote control. (That’s just no one’s idea of fun.)
Chromecast made a name for itself by stripping down the streaming experience and making it dirt cheap, at just $35. That seemed to inspire a barebones trend to strip down parts and features, and charge as little as possible. That strategy turned out to be successful for Google’s TV stick, but if every company moves in this direction, none of streaming’s bigger issues will ever get solved.
Amazon went another way. It threw hardware at the scenario. And features. It’s striving to deliver a premium product—unlike many of its competitors.
Amazon had a front row seat for Chromecast’s success, having watched the Google gadget dominate the site’s own list of electronics best sellers since opening day. Had Amazon wanted to follow suit, it would have released a dongle—as many pundits predicted—and practically given it away.
That wasn’t in the cards. And now, it’s clear the name of Amazon’s game isn’t “copycat.” It’s “chicken.”
“We’re selling millions of streaming media devices on Amazon.com,” Amazon VP Peter Larsen said at Wednesday’s media event in New York City—an oblique reference, of course, to Chromecast, Roku and Apple TV. “We hear what’s working, we hear what’s not working.”
So what does a company do with all that user feedback, which is mostly culled from its own user reviews? It goes in a different direction—head on, straight at the competition. And it’s going at high speed.
Speaking of speed, the audience of tech bloggers, journalists and analysts at Amazon’s event seemed genuinely wowed by the device’s demo performance. Of course, all tech demos make the hardware look amazing. That’s what they’re designed to do. But this box also has fans in the developer community who attest to its responsiveness.
Plex, one of the early partners for Fire TV, vouched for the set-top’s speed. Plex Chief Product Officer Scott Olechowski, who has been working with the pre-release device since last September, told me he was impressed by his test unit, which performed for him faster than the Apple TV.
Much of that quickness comes courtesy of the hardware packed inside. “Everyone’s trying to figure out how low they can get on the hardware,” Olechowski told me. “This box feels like they put the experience first, then figured out the hardware.”
Getting developers on board is crucial for Amazon. Simply put, you need to hook the people who will be making the apps, games and streaming sources, otherwise all you have is a fancy paperweight tied to a television. And that quad-core processor, dedicated GPU, 2 GB of memory, 1080p video support, and dual-band Wi-Fi go to waste.
In other words, those specs won’t matter if there aren’t enough streaming sources to keep customers happy.
Ready. Apps. Fire.
Amazon didn’t just pay attention to customer experience. It courted developers. Hard.
Amazon released the developer tools for Fire TV on the same day of its release. The press announcement emphasizes particular areas, like gaming and casting features using the DIAL protocol (which allows mobile devices to interact with set-top boxes and TVs). It also underscored how easy it is for its existing app makers to support the TV box.
Olechowski, who put Plex on sale for a limited time (from $4.99 to $0.99 now), says new users can download the Android app from the Amazon Appstore to their Fire TVs, just like they do for their Kindle Fire tablets. And, he added, “if you’ve already got it on your Kindle Fire, you’ll already be entitled to this big screen version.”
Plex and others, like RealPlayer Cloud, enable users to stream their own media files to TVs, and both of these already support the Amazon box. So does game developer Frogmind.
“Porting to Fire TV from our existing Android version was quick and the support from Amazon was excellent,” CEO Johannes Vuorinen said in the press statement. “Combined with how good BADLAND looks from a large HDTV made the decision to port to the Fire TV platform an easy one.”
These apps and others support the set-top box out of the gate. At launch, the device boasts numerous apps from major developers, including Netflix, Prime Instant Video, Hulu Plus, YouTube, WatchESPN, Showtime, VEVO, Bloomberg TV, Amazon MP3 and Pandora, among others. And Amazon’s pushing for even more. The company offers the Appstore Developer Select Program to help devs with advertising, incentive programs and other revenue generation.
All this means customers could have a slew of their favorite Android apps at the ready to usher them into the Fire TV fold. Well, at least Kindle Fire apps. Once again, this doesn’t extend to those other Android apps, i.e. those from the Google Play store. The reason seems obvious. Amazon’s tablet and new set-top box run Google’s mobile operating system at their cores, so naturally, Amazon would want to urge Android lovers to their own devices. (Sorry Samsung, HTC and Motorola. You seem to be Android non grata here.)
Another exclusion, at least right now, is one particular big-name app: HBO GO. Its omission seems pretty glaring. (And no, Showtime just isn’t the same.) It’s likely that Amazon is working hard on this deal, and we may very well see an announcement before long. But for now, there’s no peep about the Game of Thrones’ purveyor.
Time To Stream Up Or Shut Up
Fire TV clearly has a few omissions. (It’s a bummer that there are nearly no special perks for Prime subscribers like me.) But a quick look around the Web reveals that early impressions are generally positive—partly due to its fast performance, and partly because, on Day One, the device already has more streaming options than some of its competitors. (Ahem, Apple TV and Chromecast.)
Those omissions may also be something else—perhaps a show of confidence. The company didn’t try every trick in the book or bend over backwards to beg for business. Instead, it got busy focusing on what it sees as the fundamentals. The company laid important groundwork that speak to the device’s potential, which—like anything Amazonian—is big.
Amazon will, of course, nail distribution. That’s what it is good at. (Fire TV is available on Amazon online, and it will head to Staples on April 5.) That’s the last leg for a successful launch, and it follows a number of smart moves.
It took a hard look at the consumer experience and vowed to solve everyday issues—like slow buffering, clunky interfaces, irritating search functions and pointless second-screen mobile experiences. And it promises to make them better with fresh thinking and creative approaches. The company also charmed developers, and made sure the device was powerful enough to handle whatever they wanted to throw at it.
Now Amazon’s streaming box is no longer in development. It’s a real product now with real customers, and it must deliver on everything it promises. Many people pardoned Chromecast for its limitations. But customers who shell out a hundred bucks for the Fire TV may not be as forgiving.
Feature image courtesy of Amazon; all others by Dave Smith for ReadWrite