The Problem with Content Channels on Set-Top Boxes and Smart TVs

Amazon yesterday released its Fire TV, a set-top box designed to stream Amazon Instant Video, along with other services. You can use it to watch Netflix, Hulu Plus, ESPN, and several other services. But you can’t use it to access the movies and TV shows you bought from the iTunes Store.

On Apple’s side, their Apple TV lets you access Netflix, Hulu Plus, ESPN, and several other services, but not Amazon Instant Video. I have a smart TV; it’s smart enough to let me watch Netflix, but not Amazon Instant Video. I also have a Blu-ray player: a Cambridge Audio 651 BD, a high-end, multi-region, CD, DVD and Blu-ray player. This is an expensive device, but it’s designed for quality playback, and doesn’t come with apps for streaming services as cheaper Blu-ray players do.

So what’s a guy to do? I would like to watch Amazon Instant Video, which was recently introduced in the UK, where I live, but the only way I can currently do that is to either stream it from my Mac or iPad, using AirPlay, or get some kind of device that has this “channel.” I could buy Amazon’s Fire TV, but; oh, wait, it’s not available in the UK yet. I could buy a cheap Blu-ray player; that might actually cost less than Amazon’s Fire TV (when it’s released in the UK), but I would use it for nothing than than Amazon Instant Video, or maybe also use it for Netflix, instead of using my smart TV for that.

I understand that there’s a lot of competition among the different companies whose devices act as conduits for entertainment channels. But this is getting out of hand. If you want to watch a specific service — other than Netflix, which seems to be available on every device that connects to a TV — you may or may not be able to do it with your TV, Blu-ray player or other device. And things like smart TVs and Blu-Ray players rarely get updates with additional channels. So that Panasonic TV I bought last year, because it has a good picture, and was available at a good price, is well, a good TV, and not much more. If Amazon Instant Video had been available last year, I would more likely have looked for a TV that offered this service. But I’m not going to change TVs just to watch Amazon videos.

The sort of channels, or apps, that you get on smart TVs and set-top boxes should be available on all devices, if you so desire. All this fragmentation does — and, of course, this is the goal — is incite people to buy more devices. But we don’t need any more; our homes are full of devices that connect to TVs and computers. We need the One True Device that will allow us to access all these channels. Just as TVs can display all the channels available in a given area, these other devices should be able to do the same thing. They should be easily upgradable, so, when new services arrived, we can add them, in order to end this war between different companies.

The content providers would love this, of course. My guess is that some companies include specific channels, such as Netflix, because they know these channels are popular, but others content providers have to pay to be present on a set-top box or other device. Apple is, of course, one of the culprits, because they refuse to allow any non-Apple devices to display any of their content, whether it’s a video or e-books. (I only buy Kindle e-books because I can read them on just about any device with a screen.) One of the main reasons Apple pushed to drop DRM on music was because of anti-competition investigations in Europe, alleging that this DRM prevented interoperability. It’s time to do the same thing for content channels.

It’s in the interest of consumers that this tangled web of channels and apps becomes less of a headache. It’s in the interest of content providers that anyone with a device capable of playing this type of channel be able to do so. And, finally, it really is in the interest of companies selling devices that they allow as many channels as possible to be present. After all, wouldn’t Apple sell more Apple TVs if you can also watch Amazon Instant? Wouldn’t Amazon sell more of their Fire TV if you can also watch movies from the iTunes Store? We consumers are the losers in this game; it would be nice if we didn’t have to worry about which channels are available on all these different devices so we could buy just one and use it to watch what we want.