Amazon Fire TV’s lead over rival streaming platform Roku is widening. In January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Amazon said it had “well over” 30 million Fire TV users compared with Roku’s then 27 million active users. In roughly four months’ time, Fire TV has grown to over 34 million active users, according to new statements made by Amazon this week. Meanwhile, Roku grew its user base by 2 million in the first quarter of 2019 to reach 29.1 million active users, per its earnings report this month.
The new figures for Amazon Fire TV were shared yesterday by Fire TV GM and Global Head of Marketing, Growth & Engagement, Jen Prenner, at the Pay TV Show during a panel titled “The Battle for Your Living Room: Sticks, Boxes, and Smart TV Platforms.”
Amazon also claims that Fire TV has grown to become the No. 1 streaming media player platform in the U.S., U.K., Germany, India, and Japan, thanks to its strong sales momentum.
When Amazon first announced its user number at CES, there was some question as to how those figures were calculated. Roku typically defines its “active” user as someone who has streamed through its platform over the past 30 days. Amazon, at the time, had only spoken about users more generally, without characterizing them as “actives.”
However, yesterday’s comments referenced “active users,” Amazon says, not just a total number of users.
Roku dominated U.S. streaming player market share last year, but Fire TV has likely gained ground internationally. Today, the Fire TV ships worldwide to a wide range of countries, all of which can use the device to stream Prime Video content. Roku, meanwhile, ships to a couple dozen countries including the U.S., Canada, the U.K., France, and parts of Latin America. However, Roku last year had to stop sales in Mexico until it addressed issues involving access to pirated content, which were only resolved in October.
Fire TV also benefits from Amazon’s frequent and steep discounts on its hardware devices — including those over the holiday shopping period, where Fire TV Stick became a best seller. It’s been known to sell devices at cost or below, in an effort to gain market share. Plus, today’s consumers may be drawn to Fire TV because of its built-in access to Alexa — something that makes it one of the cheapest ways to get the popular voice assistant into the home.
Amazon is focused this year on expanding access to content and Alexa voice controls on Fire TV. On the content front, it recently came to an agreement with Google that allows it to finally bring YouTube to Fire TV, and following that, YouTube TV and YouTube Kids. It also has plans to support both Disney+ and Apple TV+ later this year, the company says.
I sat down with Menlo Ventures partner Shawn Carolan this week to talk about his early investment in Uber. Menlo, if you remember, led Uber’s Series B and has made a hefty sum over the year selling shares in the ride-hailing company. I’ll have more on that later; for now, I want to share some of the insights Carolan had on his experience ditching venture capital to become a founder.
Around when Menlo made its first investment in Uber, Carolan began taking a step back from the firm and building Handle, a startup that built tools to help people be more productive. Despite years of hard work, Handle was ultimately a failure. Carolan said he shed a lot of tears over its demise, but used the experience to connect more intimately with founders and to offer them more candid, authentic advice.
“People in the valley are always achievement-oriented; it’s always about the next thing and crushing it and whatever,” Carolan told TechCrunch. “When [Handle] shut down, I had this spreadsheet of all the people who I felt like I disappointed: Seed investors who invested in me, all the people at Menlo and my friends who had tweeted out early stuff. It was a long spreadsheet of like 60 people. And when I started a sabbatical, what I said was I’m going to go connect with everyone and apologize.”
Today, Carolan encourages founders to own their vulnerabilities.
“It’s OK to admit when you’re wrong,” he said. “Now I can see it on [founders’] faces, I can see when they’re scared. And they’re not going to say they’re scared but I know it’s tough. This is one of the toughest things that you’re going to go through. Now I can be there emotionally for these founders and I can say ‘here’s how you do it, here’s how you talk to your team and here’s what you share.’ A lot of founders feel like they have to do this alone and that’s why you have to getcomfortable with your vulnerability.”
After Handle shuttered, Carolan returned to Menlo full time and made the firm a boatload of money from Roku’s IPO and now Uber’s. Anyway, thought those were some nice anecdotes that should be shared since most of our feeds are dominated by Silicon Valley hustle porn.
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TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield brings the world’s top early-stage startups together on one stage to compete for non-dilutive prize money, and the attention of media and investors worldwide. Here’s a quick update on some of our BF winners and finalists:
If you enjoy this newsletter, be sure to check out TechCrunch’s venture-focused podcast, Equity. In this week’s episode, available here, Crunchbase News editor-in-chief Alex Wilhelm, myself and Phil Libin, the founder of Evernote and AllTurtles, chat about the importance of IPOs. Plus, in a special Equity Shot, Alex and I unpack the Uber S-1.
In the past, Roku seemed to be more of neutral platform compared with streaming media player rivals like Amazon Fire TV or Apple TV. The company gave everyone else’s content equal footing through its add-on channels and in Roku search, as had nothing of its own to promote. That’s changing with the rollout of Roku OS 9.1, beginning today. The update adds a feature that automatically plays back The Roku Channel’s movies and TV shows at times; another that better showcases the channel’s free content in genre-focused searches; and one that introduces a new navigation menu with offers for other Roku products.
These features arrive alongside other changes like a new guest mode and easier sign-in to subscriptions.
Among the more innocuous changes are the new guest mode and automatic account linking.
Roku in January first announced an “auto sign out mode,” which allowed guests to sign into subscription channels using their own accounts instead of the Roku owner’s credentials. And guests could specify when their credentials would expire on that device – a useful feature in particular for Airbnb operators. Today, “auto sign out mode” is being rebranded as “guest mode,” and can now be enabled or disabled on select devices. It also now allows Roku owners to sign out the guests themselves.
Meanwhile, Roku is making it easier for customers who move set up new Roku devices by addressing one of the bigger headaches: logging in again to all your streaming account subscriptions. With Automatic Account Link, Roku users won’t have to re-enter their credentials when activating a new Roku player or Roku TV – the subscription data will simply copy over from their existing account.
At launch, this feature is supported on less than 10 subscriptions, including Pandora and Sling TV. But Roku says more are in the works.
More notably, are the changes Roku is introducing today that will see it promoting its own content and products to users.
For starters, a change to Roku Search (currently only in the U.S.) is now organizing content more visually.
When users search for a genre like “comedy” or “action,” the content is displayed in a more Netflix-like fashion with larger image thumbnails and rows you scroll through horizontally. However, Roku has decided to organize content by type instead of, say, subsets of “comedy” or “action,” or whatever genre was being searched.
So while a service like Netflix lets you drill down into genres (e.g. Romantic Comedy, Action Comedy, Family Comedy, TV Comedy, etc.), Roku instead is organizing search results by whether the content is free, subscription, on-demand or 4K.
That’s not really an issue – in fact, it can be useful – but it’s worth noting that the second row from the top is “free.” Not surprisingly, this points users to the free, ad-supported content from The Roku Channel alongside other free sources.
That’s similar to how a search for “free” works on Roku today, but now Roku is giving free content more visibility by giving it a prominent spot in these more visual, genre-based searches, too.
With Voice Search, however, The Roku Channel gets its biggest push yet.
With Roku OS 9.1, when you search for movies and TV shows using your voice, content available on The Roku Channel that matches those results will automatically begin playing in some scenarios. That includes The Roku Channel’s ad-supported fare as well as content from any of the premium subscriptions you have through The Roku Channel.
“Playback will occur when the movie or show is available only in The Roku Channel, or when a customer specifically indicates the channel name in their voice command,” writes Roku, in a blog post.
The company even acknowledges that this product change introduces a bit of favoritism into its previously unbiased search platform.
“If playback from a voice command is not available for a specific movie or show, you’ll continue to see unbiased search results ordered by price, so you can choose the best viewing option,” the company says, detailing how voice search works when The Roku Channel can’t be favored.
It’s not exactly a huge disservice to customers to start playing a title from the only available source for their request. But it is a way to juice views of The Roku Channel content instead of allowing users to choose to rent or buy the title elsewhere.
Today, voice search kicks users over to a search results list where they see all the options for streaming a title, which includes The Roku Channel, when available, as well as places where the movie or show can be purchased or rented. Those who don’t like ads often choose to buy or rent, rather than stream a free, ad-supported version. The 9.1 update makes this option more difficult.
Roku says other channels will gain automatic playback in the weeks ahead, which will work best when a customer says the full title and the channel name in the voice command.
Alongside this, Roku is adding voice commands: “replay” to go back a few seconds; “turn closed captions on/off; and “turn display off” for Roku TVs that offer the Fast TV Start feature.
Roku TV models will also receive the Automatic Volume Leveling feature that arrived to Roku players in Roku OS 9.
Another Roku OS 9.1 feature will advertise more Roku products to users through a My Offers link that appears in the left navigation menu of the Roku home screen.
Here, users can check to see if they’re eligible for special discounts on Roku products, accessories or – yep, even content subscriptions. The link appears when those personalized discounts are available, and users can make a purchase directly from the ad itself using their remote.
Roku OS 9.1 is rolling out as a software update to select Roku streaming players today (a full list is in the release notes), and will reach all supported players in the coming weeks. Roku TV models are expected to receive the update in early summer.
Now, alongside the free content, Roku users can choose to subscribe to premium channels like Showtime, Starz, EPIX, and others – including, as of this week, HBO. Those channels’ content can then be streamed directly through The Roku Channel itself on TVs as well as within Roku’s updated mobile app.
When The Roku Channel’s subscription platform made its debut earlier this year, HBO was one of the biggest names to come up missing, along with Netflix and Hulu.
But Netflix and Hulu don’t tend to allow subscriptions through third-party platforms like The Roku Channel (or, more recently, via Apple TV+). HBO, however, does. The premium channel and home to “Game of Thrones” is available as an add-on across a range of streaming services and a la carte TV providers – including The Roku Channel’s biggest competitor, Amazon Prime Video Channels.
Without HBO in The Roku Channel, users who wanted to stream one of TV’s biggest shows would have to leave Roku’s hub and navigate back to the Roku home screen where they could access HBO directly through its dedicated Roku app. That was bad news for Roku as it’s trying to keep users’ viewing activity centralized and contained in one spot, in order to promote the ad-supported fare that helps Roku make money.
Roku says users can now opt into a free 7-day HBO trial in The Roku Channel, which then converts to a $14.99 per month subscription if the trial isn’t cancelled.
Those who subscribe to HBO through The Roku Channel won’t be able to login to HBO’s standalone apps, HBO NOW or HBO Go, but will instead watch its content through Roku’s hub, where its programs are featured alongside Roku’s over 10,000 free movies and TV episodes.
For consumers, keeping all your add-on TV subscriptions in one place makes it easier to track what you’re paying for, and simplifies the cancellation process when you’re ready to adjust your cord cutting mix.
Apple yesterday shared plans to bring its Apple TV app to multiple smart TVs and third-party set-top boxes, including the Amazon Fire TV and Roku. The TV app will house Apple TV+, Apple’s upcoming streaming service for its original content when it launches later this year.
Following Apple’s announcement, Roku CEO Anthony Wood spoke to CNBC about Apple’s decision to expand access to the TV app, expressing excitement that the content will be available on Roku devices.
Wood believes that Apple is “well-positioned” to be successful in the TV streaming market, despite its competitiveness, due to the company’s large user base.
There were not a lot of details announced, but I think they’re well-positioned to be successful. They’ve got a lot of experience with subscription services, they’re investing a lot of money in content, and they’ve got a great brand and lots of loyal customers.
Wood went on to say that while Apple is counting on its iOS and macOS devices to “jumpstart” Apple TV+, the importance of smart TVs should not be ignored.
When you have a TV streaming service, you know, obviously they’re counting on jumpstarting that with all of their iPhone and iPad and Mac customers, but actually, smart TVs are the way that most streaming services – long form streaming services – are viewed by customers. That’s where they spend most of their hours.
Roku, says Wood, is the leading streaming TV platform, and if Apple wants to be successful, Apple needs to be on Roku and other similar platforms.
For any kind of service like that to be successful, you want to be on the leading streaming TV platforms and Roku is the leading streaming TV platform. We’re the leading distributor of streaming content in the U.S.
According to Wood, there are no real negatives to Apple entering the streaming market for Roku because Roku supports all streaming services to offer its customers choice. Roku isn’t betting on any one company to come out ahead in the streaming market because Roku “works with everyone” and benefits from a large amount of content being available.
Apple TV+ will launch in the fall, but ahead of its debut, the newly revamped TV app will become available in May. Apple plans to bring the TV app to multiple third-party platforms, starting with Samsung Smart TVs. Later in the year, it will expand to Amazon Fire TV devices, Roku devices, and smart TVs from Sony, LG, and Vizio.
AirPlay 2 integration is expected to arrive in the form of a Roku OS software update for Roku media players, but it’s unclear if all models will be supported. AirPlay 2 will also be supported by Roku-based smart TVs, available from brands such as TCL, Sharp, Hisense, Hitachi, Sanyo, and RCA.
Back in January, Apple announced that select AirPlay 2-enabled smart TVs are coming from leading brands such as Samsung, LG, Vizio, and Sony. AirPlay 2 support on Roku will greatly expand Apple’s wireless streaming protocol to virtually any smart TV with a Roku player plugged into the HDMI port.
AirPlay 2 will enable Roku users to stream video, audio, photos, and other content directly from an iPhone, iPad, or Mac to their smart TVs.
Apple and Roku are negotiating a launch date and marketing surrounding AirPlay 2. Roku has yet to publicly confirm the plans, with a spokesperson earlier indicating that “we don’t have anything to share regarding this now.”
Roku this morning announced its devices will now be compatible with Amazon’s Alexa. Through a new Roku skill for Alexa, Roku owners will be able to control their devices in order to do things like launch a channel, play or pause a show, search for entertainment options, and more. Roku TV owners will additionally be able to control various functions related to their television, like adjusting the volume, turning on and off the TV, switching inputs and changing channels if there is an over-the-air antenna attached.
The added support for Amazon Alexa will be available to devices running Roku OS 8.1 or higher, and will require customers enable the new Roku skill which will link their account to Amazon.
Roku has developed its own voice assistant designed specifically for its platform, which available with a touch of a button on its voice remote as well as through optional accessories like its voice-powered wireless speakers, tabletop Roku Touch remote, or TCL’s Roku-branded Smart Soundbar. However, it hasn’t ignored the needs of those who have invested in other voice platforms.
The Roku app will work with any Alexa-enabled device, including the Amazon Echo, Echo Show, Echo Dot, Echo Spot and Echo Plus, as well as those powered by Alexa from third parties, the company confirmed to TechCrunch.
Once enabled, you’ll be able to say things like “Alexa, pause Roku,” or “Alexa, open Hulu on Roku,” or “Alexa, find comedies on Roku,” and more. The key will be starting the command with “Alexa,” as usual, then specify “Roku” is where the action should take place (e.g. “on Roku”).
One change with the launch of voice support via Alexa is that the commands are a bit more natural, in some cases. Where as Google Assistant required users to say “Hey Google, pause on Roku,” the company today says the same command for Alexa users is “Alexa, pause Roku.” That’s a lot easier to remember and say. However, most of the other commands are fairly consistent between the two platforms.
“Consumers often have multiple voice ecosystems in their homes,” said Ilya Asnis, senior vice president of Roku OS at Roku, in a statement about the launch. “By allowing our customers to choose Alexa, in addition to Roku voice search and controls, and other popular voice assistants; we are strengthening the value Roku offers as a neutral platform in home entertainment.”