Roku Founder: Say Goodbye to Cable Boxes and Hello to TV Apps
Anthony Wood forever changed the way we watch TV. Not just once, but twice, and we have no doubt he’ll do it again before he’s through. Either way, TV tech is ripe for even more innovation, he says.
You might recognize Wood as the soft-spoken, suspenders-sporting Silicon Valley electrical engineer who invented the Roku in 2008. Roku, which means six in Japanese (as in Wood’s sixth company), was originally designed to stream movies from Netflix, where Wood was vice president of Internet TV at the time.
Roku, of course, has helped fuel the cord-cutting and binge Internet TV-watching trends, empowering viewers to watch what they want, whenever they want to. Movies, TV shows, video clips, music, games. You name it. On-demand. All day. Every day. All streamed from the Internet to your Roku to your TV. No killer monthly cable subscriptions necessary, and often with fewer commercials than old-school TV. Or, better yet, sometimes no commercials at all.
And today, as it turns out, is the sixth anniversary of the first Roku device being shipped.
Now, turn back the clock to something you might not know about the founder of Roku: He also invented the digital video recorder (DVR) in 1999, allowing us to digitally capture live TV shows and play them back whenever we want. He came up with the idea for it when brainstorming a more efficient way to record Star Trek: The Next Generation. His first DVR device was aptly branded as ReplayTV, which DirecTV eventually acquired.
Before Wood pioneered the DVR and the Roku, he developed multi-track audio post-production software for several big-name musical acts, including the Doobie Brothers. He went on to co-found iband, an Internet software startup that he sold in 1996 for a cool $35 million to Macromedia, which is now Adobe Systems. The core code Wood authored at iband is now the basis of Adobe Dreamweaver, “the leading HTML authoring tool in the world,” he says.
Not only did Wood revolutionize how the viewing masses consume TV, his open source Roku platform broke down the rigid traditional distribution barriers for content owners and distributors. Wood cut out the middle man and made it faster and easier to market content directly to consumers.
We caught up with the father of the cord-cutting movement to talk about the current tumultuous state of TV tech and what he thinks is its future. What follows are portions of that interview, edited for clarity and brevity.
Entrepreneur: People used to say that no one wants another set-top box. You proved them wrong with Roku. What’s your take on the state of streaming TV now, and what can we expect in five years?
Wood: I think that people who say people don’t want another box are just being naive. What people don’t want is another box that doesn’t do anything. Consumers have shown an interest in boxes that bring value, like Blu-ray players, game consoles, satellite receivers -- they’ve all been successful despite being a box.
I think, yeah, Roku is a box, it’s just a way to receive content, a huge library of great content, so it’s got a lot of value. People don’t mind adding a box when it has value. And most TVs don’t. You can’t buy a TV today, whether it’s a smart TV or not, that has access to as much content as you get through Roku. So that’s why people buy boxes and that’s why it’s growing.
We do think that it will start to integrate into TVs and that’s why we built the Roku TV, which will be shipping this fall. But, even with the Roku TV, you will have people who will keep their TV for six to eight years … so, we think boxes as an upgrade vehicle will be something that will be popular for a long, long time.
Entrepreneur: What’s the next tech innovation that will disrupt TV tech?
Wood: A big one is what we’re focused on, which is bringing the Roku operating system to TV. So I think what’s going to happen is that all TVs are going to end up with an operating system in them the way that smartphones have operating systems.
Things like cable boxes are going to go away and they will become apps on your TV. There will be a lot of other features that TVs will start to have, like search and content that’s recommended for me. The whole experience of watching TV is going to change from a cable box of channels to more like an Internet experience where you get recommendations and see what your friends watch and that everything ever made will be available on demand.
We’re starting to see that now with companies like Netflix and TV Everywhere, like HBO GO, but we’re just in the early stages of all of the content moving towards Internet streaming.
Entrepreneur: Will Roku ever create its own content?
Wood: Our goal is to be a great distribution channel for our content partners, so we don’t today do any content ourselves and don’t have any plans for that. Our goal was to bring content to customers and bring customers to content partners and that’s what we do.
Entrepreneur: Do small, independent content companies stand a chance in streaming TV or have the big players, like Netflix, Hulu and HBO GO, locked them out?
Wood: No. I think it’s created opportunities for smaller companies. For example, I mean it’s not that small, but when we launched Vevo on our platform, which is not a cable channel, it instantly became one of the top 10 channels on Roku.
We call it the long tail, the content that’s not in the top 10, and it’s growing every day on Roku. One of our challenges actually is to expose that content more in our user interface.
Getting your content on Roku is like publishing on an Android or an iPhone. You just go to our website and download the SDK. You write your channel and then you hit “publish.” It’s all click through and automatic.
I think we’re a great opportunity for companies to get content distribution without having to deal with a cable operator. Now, it’s up to them for that content to stand out and be good enough quality for it to break out, but the long tail does get a lot of viewing on our platform.
Entrepreneur: How will the Aereo Supreme Court case shape the future of streaming TV?
Wood: I don’t have an opinion on how the case will go, but I think that lawsuits like these, especially at the U.S. Supreme Court, that TV is really changing and it’s creating questions in people’s minds that need to be resolved. It shows that the desire that people have to be able to watch local stations on-demand over the Internet and that that’s a real need, whether it’s sold by Aereo or by the TV stations themselves. I think that is the future and I don’t know whether it will be Aereo or whether the industry will get together and provide some kind of solution.
Kim Lachance Shandrow is the former West Coast editor at Entrepreneur.com. Previously, she was a commerce columnist at Los Angeles CityBeat, a news producer at MSNBC and KNBC in Los Angeles and a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Times. She has also written for Government Technology magazine, LA Yoga magazine, the Lowell Sun newspaper, HealthCentral.com, PsychCentral.com and the former U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. C. Everett Coop. Follow her on Twitter at @Lashandrow. You can also follow her on Facebook here.