With Fire TV, Amazon joins growing battle among tech giants to reinvent TV watching


Peter Larsen, vice president of Amazon’s Kindle, gives a demonstration of Fire TV at a news conference Wednesday. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Amazon.com stepped into the fight to control America’s televisions Wednesday, unveiling a $99 set-top box known as Fire TV.

The small black device will allow viewers to watch movies and other video content on their televisions, bridging a gap between shopping and entertainment that the firm has long strived to address.

It puts Amazon at the center of a growing battle among tech giants to reinvent TV watching. Televisions have become thinner and larger in the past decade, but the industry has struggled to make them any smarter.

Amazon said its device would make it easier for consumers to find the content they want and address the poor video streaming quality that keeps some from watching shows online. The device also comes with components normally found in top-level smartphones, including advanced WiFi antennas to keep customers from that frustrating buffering experience. Fire TV includes voice search — something that industry observers have long expected Apple to do with its Siri technology — allowing users to speak into the remote to find a genre, actor or title.

“This is voice search that actually works,” said Kindle Vice President Peter Larsen, perhaps taking a dig at Apple’s Siri or the voice-control capabilities in Microsoft’s Xbox One.

Amazon also threw in an curveball. Fire TV will also work as a stripped-down game console, launching with such titles as Minecraft and Asphalt 8.

But Amazon faces stiff competition, and others have tried — and failed — to gain a foothold in America’s living rooms. According to data from Nielsen published in February, Americans spend an average of 185 hours per month with their televisions, as opposed to 34 hours and 21 minutes with their smartphones. And although mobile use is on a steady rise — up an average of six hours from the same time last year — much of that time is spent accessing entertainment content.

To compete, Amazon must take on Roku, the market leader in the set-top box space. It will also go against Apple’s “hobby” product, the Apple TV, which has never taken off outside of the firm’s most devoted fans. Google, which tried and largely failed to get a foothold in the smart television space a couple of years ago, finally hit on a solution last year with the $35 Chromecast, but it still does not have the content breadth to compete widely.

Most of Roku’s devices are cheaper and give consumers access to more video content. But “Roku has to be nervous,” said Forrester Research analyst James L. McQuivey. Amazon will take awhile to catch up, particularly overseas, where Roku and Apple see stronger sales, but U.S. customers are looking for an easy way to get streaming content on the television, he said.

The media landscape has become fractured with viewers choosing between content from several streaming sites, cable providers, broadcast channels, ­video-on-demand services and more. Sifting through multiple services’ catalogues is a frustrating experience when all you want to do is satisfy a movie craving.

“It’s gotten worse,” said Dan Rayburn, principal analyst at Frost & Sullivan and executive vice president of Streaming­Media.com. “There are more guys with more devices. As more services come out, and they’re not all through one portal, you have to go directly to all of these things. That’s part of the problem with fragmentation as more of these devices come to the market.”

The launch marks Amazon’s most aggressive push into the hardware business since the Kindle Fire.

“They have the marketing power and ability to push it hard,” Rayburn said, adding that Amazon is no stranger to pushing cheap hardware to sell more content. That was the firm’s strategy with its Kindle line of e-readers and tablets for years.

And there is a lot of potential upside for Amazon. Those who own the Amazon Kindle, for example, spend $400 more at Amazon than those who don’t, according to a study from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. The same firm has also estimated that Prime members spend twice as much as non-Prime members. A streaming video gadget could provide the same kind of boost for Amazon, analysts say.

Amazon could have gone further, however, by leveraging its retail expertise and letting consumers use the device’s voice-control­ capabilities for purchases, as well, McQuivey said.

“What we eventually want is television commerce, to be able to buy things from your TV,” he said. It’s a space, he said, that Amazon should “carve out specifically for itself.”

(Amazon.com chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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