OPINION: Amazon throws down a challenge
I don’t for a second believe Amazon’s Fire TV is the finished article, but Amazon’s focus and ambition should force Apple and Google to get serious about TV and make TV manufacturers a little nervous.
At first glance there’s nothing especially remarkable about Amazon Fire TV. It’s a small box that connects to your TV, and there’s no shortage of those. We already have Apple TV, Roku has been around for ages and Google has experimented in various ways before settling on the Chromecast ‘stick’. In one movement Amazon is taking aim at numerous rivals, and its clout and knack for marketing products can’t be ignored.
First, Fire TV is more powerful and more versatile (on paper) than any Smart TV or ‘TV’ box. Its Snapdragon 800 processor has enough grunt to produce decent looking games for a large screen TV, while the addition of a dedicated game controller shows Amazon is really serious about Fire TV as a casual gaming platform. Power on its own isn't especially important, but it provides greater freedom and opportunities.
Secondly, Amazon is putting serious investment into content. Like Netflix, it’s already well down the road to becoming a ‘TV studio’ in its own right. Amazon Originals, such as Alpha House (with Jon Goodman), Betas (I'm sensing a theme here...) and The After (from the X-Files creator) are signs of intent, and it's even investing in original children's programming -- a very savvy move.
Amazon isn’t just relying on third-parties for games, either, as the hiring of experienced game designers Kim Swift (famous for Portal and ex-Valve) and Clint Hocking (design lead on Far Cry 2, among others) shows. Quite what these appointments will result in remains to be seen, but backing talent such as this shows Amazon doesn't consider gaming a trivial add-on.
Don’t buy a new TV, buy a $100 box instead
This is the ultimate fear for TV makers. It’s hardly a new one, but Amazon’s move brings it into stark relief and makes the success of 4K TVs all the more important. 3D has largely failed as a selling point for new TVs, which has placed an increasing importance on Smart TV as a way to differentiate between brands.
Indeed, if you’re not too fussed about the nuances of picture quality it could be seen as the way to separate one brand from another. If you fall into this camp, as I think the large majority of normal TV buyers do, the idea of spending £100/$100 or so on a little box as an upgrade is pretty compelling. It’s not a new trend, but Amazon entering the market will make such options more high-profile and more serious.
Your move Apple
Apple, meanwhile, will be under greater scrutiny than ever to make Apple TV a more ambitious product. It’s often joked that Apple TV is a ‘hobby’ for Apple, but that hasn’t been true for a long while now. It’s a nice little earner worth over $1 billion in 2013 according Apple, but Apple hasn’t launched any new hardware in ages, and the software and interface is little more than functional.
Apple TV is overdue a serious overhaul, and Apple will look very silly if it doesn’t happen this year. There’s a reasonable chance Apple has a serious move in its plans, but it can’t afford to wait any longer.
Is Chromecast a serious alternative?
As for Google, Fire TV makes Chromecast look like a slightly geeky, niche product. This is, I freely admit, a gross over simplification. I like Chromecast – it’s simple, elegant and straightforward, and it’s Google’s best TV product after several poor attempts.
For me, it lacks the ‘designed for TV’ feeling in the way Fire TV or Apple TV does. It’s a widget, a dongle... a middle man rather than a dedicated platform for watching and enjoying TV on rather than a potential replacement for your set-top box.
It’s clearly a very effective extension for Android devices that makes them more useful, but in my eyes it's not yet a serious answer to the future of TV. It, or something similar, could become that, but it needs a little work yet.
Amazon has one serious problem…
…it needs to launch it worldwide quickly. Amazon has only launched Fire TV in the US thus far, and it doesn’t have a good record for launching products and services beyond the US quickly. It took a while to get the Kindle going outside the US, it’s only recently unified its ‘Prime’ service in the UK like it has in the US (and annoyed a great many people in the process), and it remains tight lipped on its Fire TV UK release plans.
If I can’t buy a Fire TV before the end of the this year, Amazon will have missed an open goal. If it makes Fire TV global quickly, however, then the world of internet TV is about to get interesting.
I'm hoping it does, because it will force Apple, Google and everyone else to innovate faster and really compete, and hopefully hasten the end of the clunky, pain in the ass PVR.
Next, read our Amazon Fire TV vs Apple TV comparison