App TV: Rockin' With Roku
It is an open question whether most consumers really want the web on their TV or not. Sure, sure, for dweebs like us the idea of streaming Cali Lewis or the usual You Tube suspects in higher def to our living room screen seems like the natural next step of Web video. Until you actually have to navigate an interface that accommodates all of that content. There still is a big disconnect between the keyboard-and-search-driven-more-than-you-can-eat Web and the lean-back-remote-in-hand-entertain-me TV experience. Go ahead and shoot me Web purists, but I just don't think most Americans really want to hunt and peck through way too many content options on the TV screen.
One of the things I like about the Roku Player I have been using the past few nights is the way that it broadens the choice of video content far beyond what is available on the new Apple TV, and yet it maintains a kind of manageable order. It pretty much feels like TV by app. You can rifle through scores of Web video channels, including Netflix, Amazon video, Revision3, blip.tv, break.com, etc. and assemble a set of favorite icons. Flickr, smugmug, vimeo and Pandora are also here, so it very much feels like a mobile extensions of familiar Web brands.
Then of course some drilling comes in as you find your way through the endless shows and episodes. Roku has made their system of subscribing to premium channels as easy as navigating to a Web page on your nearby laptop and entering a handshake code to activate the service on your Roku box. I was able to hook amazon on demand into my standard Amazon account and the Roku player even picked up some old videos I had purchased from them years ago. By the way, the Amazon ordering system is only slightly less convenient than Apple's media rental process. They make you input a PIN with every purchase, which is a pain. But I was able to rent Iron Man 2 in very pleasing 1080p (vs Apple's low-hi-res) and the difference was discernible. Amazon's selection and ordering process are good, and there is no reason why they shouldn't be a strong alternative player in the digital distribution ecosystem.
Likewise Netflix is actually superior on the Roku to Apple TV. Not only can it hit higher resolutions but the film browsing experience is closer to the iPad app than it is to the Apple TV experience. You can navigate a wall of movie posters and the movie details pop up when you hover over any one of them. Apple makes you click through for details.
Clearly Apple is pushing the narrow functionality of TV and film rentals. While podcasts are available on the Apple TV the range of Web video in app-like channels that you can surface easily is not. Roku appeals to the web video geek in me for whom more is always more. This gets us one step closer to making Web video a series of widgets or apps for truly customized TV. Is the road to future TV going to be by way of the smart phone?