Why Apple, Microsoft, or Amazon Will Win the the Living Room

Apple’s recent launch of a much-revised and improved Apple TV experience brings the family room back into the spotlight, where a long-standing war has been raging. From game consoles to set-top boxes (STB) to smart apps, a host of hardware and software companies have been vying for the coveted “gateway” spot—the main device or application with which users watch their video content, whether it’s on the TV or the smartphone.

Up until now, it’s been a somewhat lopsided battle among five companies—Microsoft, Apple, Google, Sony, and Amazon. For over a decade, these contenders have been incrementally improving how well their offerings let users navigate, view, discover, and search for content. In some instances, such as with the previous generation of Apple TV, there was even connection between devices. For example, you could control the Apple TV with the Remote app on the iPhone.

But Apple isn’t the only company that’s enabling this cross-device experience. Each of these companies has made incredible improvements to its device (Xbox, PS4, Chromecast, FireTV) in order to facilitate a more agnostic approach to content consumption, which brings me to the point of this column. Why didn’t I include Roku in that mix? Or TiVo? Or any of a dozen other device manufacturers? Because, quite simply, those devices aren’t going to win this war. It’s much bigger than just a cute little black box or a software application.

It’s about a platform.

When you look at those five companies I listed, all of them do two things. First, they have a family of devices that, in some form or another, are connected to each other, whether it’s via the cloud or a direct connection, such as with the Apple Remote app and the Apple TV. Regardless, the experience crosses devices. There is no web app for Roku. There is no STB for Plex (more on them in a moment). Second, these five companies actually have a platform for media consumption that unites devices, the web, and the personal computer.

Take iTunes, for example. This software, installed on a user’s local computer and part of the iOS experience on their phones and tablets, enables users to manage their entire media library, purchase new media, and share their media. Cloud-enabled, it provides an opportunity to consume content wherever the user happens to be. The same goes for Xbox (via Xbox Live) and Amazon (via Kindle). Google and Sony? They need something to unify media across their devices—some software they can install on computers and devices. Until they have that, they’re dark horses at best. And with its cross-platform software (available on all the major devices and the web and even integrated into many network-attached storage products), so is Plex. Although I’d venture to guess Plex is more of an acquisition target than anything else. (Google and Sony, are you paying attention?) Back to the matter at hand, though, Apple has just upped the ante. Apple TV is now part of the Apple OS family. It’s integrated. Like the iPhone and iPad, it supports apps. (Plex has an app for it; Google and Sony, what are you waiting for?) Users can customize the media experience with different content owners. And don’t tell me you can’t imagine a day when the apps from content owners such as HBO and AMC will be cracked open and exposed, enabling a platform provider like Apple, or Amazon, or Microsoft, the ability to create a unifying vision of content across OTT providers. Don’t shake your head, it’s coming.

My bet? If someone (cough, cough, Google or Sony) doesn’t acquire Plex as it’s unifying platform software, Apple’s going to win this war—it has the content owner relationships, the most popular family of devices, the most robust platform. And soon? A subscription service for broadcast TV content.

Go ahead and grab your popcorn. Round 12 is just starting.

This article appears in the January/February 2016 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “In the Fight for the Family Room, the Platform Wins.”

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