Video services

Roku Revamps: Why It Matters

Roku is adding new app channel features for developers, underscoring why native apps still have a role to play opposite HTML5 applications, and why the television app market is still so fractured.

According to Cord Cutters News, Roku has released several updates to its platform for developers ahead of the launch of new Roku hardware -- and possibly an upgraded Roku OS -- this fall. New feature options include the ability to add a larger row of highlighted content in the grid guide, to create menu overlays on live-stream content and to offer multiple live streams within a single channel.

The updates come as Roku Inc. argues with the industry at large about the value of native apps and their importance to the TV ecosystem. With the FCC now proposing that pay-TV providers make their services available via apps on third-party devices, many have reasoned that new TV apps should default to the open HTML5 standard. But Roku asserts that HTML5 is "bulky and expensive," and suggests that native apps can offer more innovative features and better performance. (See Roku: HTML5 No Panacea for TV Apps.)

The problem with native apps is that they require platform-specific development. Unlike with web apps, there's no write once, read everywhere solution.

It's a minor issue in the mobile industry because there are only two commercially viable app platforms: Android and iOS. But the same can't be said in television. For TV, there's the Roku platform, Amazon Fire TV, Apple tvOS, Sony PlayStation, Microsoft Xbox and more. Content and service providers can choose to develop individual apps for each platform, but that requires significantly more resources than the option to create one web app and distribute it everywhere.

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If pay-TV providers do end up relying on HTML5 to put their apps on third-party devices, it will likely speed the rollout of these apps. But at the same time, defaulting to HTML5 could also give operators a way to offer a lesser service on retail boxes than on the set-top hardware they lease directly to subscribers.

Case in point, Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) also released updates to its X1 platform recently, adding in enhanced voice search capabilities for its TV service, personalized sports leaderboards and more. Will Comcast make these same features available to third-party devices through an HTML5 app? What if it's only possible, or practical, through the development of a native app?

Because Roku has significant market share, many app developers will likely take advantage of new features in the TV app platform. But as long as the TV market remains highly fractured, it will be hard to gain feature parity across devices, and there will continue to be questions about where developers should invest their resources.

— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading

Mitch Wagner 9/20/2016 | 11:39:00 AM
Re: History Yes, the plethora of consumer devices and smart TVs make a lowest-common-denominator platform like HTML5 appealing. 

Though i do suspect that the mobile market hadn't yet settled down to Android vs. iOS when Facebook had its HTML5 debacle. 
msilbey 9/20/2016 | 9:55:03 AM
Re: History I do feel like the war has already been settled (at least temporarily) in the mobile space. But again, the TV ecosystem is much more fractured. We don't have Android and iOS as the default operating systems. 
Mitch Wagner 9/19/2016 | 6:17:16 PM
History HTML5 got a huge setback when Facebook stumbled after putting its mobile development focus on the standard. 
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