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Roku CEO Anthony Wood on his new smart home products

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What’s the most popular smart home technology we’ve seen so far? It’s simple: streaming video. It has changed the way we watch TV. And one of the enduring success stories is Roku. In the most recent quarter, people watched nearly 21 billion hours of video on Roku’s platform, which is built into many TVs, as well as its own boxes and sticks. according to Convivathe company currently accounts for 31% of video streamed to TVs, by far the highest share of any platform.

Roku has a well-known brand, a widespread software platform, and—perhaps most importantly—a long-standing talent for making technology accessible and affordable. Now it hopes to leverage all of that to expand its presence in the home well beyond its traditional domain. Starting October 17, a full line of Roku Smart Home gadgets will be available at Walmart stores; they are also on sale today at Walmart.com and Roku’s own online store. (As reported by Dave Zatz of Zatz not funnysome units slipped out early.)

The products include indoor and outdoor cameras, floodlight camera, wired and wireless video doorbells, smart light bulbs, smart plugs and a smart light strip. Everything is designed to be within reach of the masses, at prices ranging from $6.88 for a light bulb to $99 for the floodlight camera.

If any of these minimalist, white-wrapped gadgets look familiar, there’s a good reason for it. Rather than designing its own line of smarthome items, Roku has partnered with Wyze Labs, a company that already makes all that stuff and sells it at comparable prices.

That collaboration has not stopped. The new Roku devices are “white-labeled Wyze products,” Roku founder and CEO Anthony Wood told me when we spoke recently. But he also explained why Roku’s expansion beyond streaming video isn’t just about boxing someone else’s products with the Roku label. It also allows the company to turn its streaming platform into a home-control hub.

[Photo: Roku]

For the past few years, “we’ve been working on a whole-home operating system,” Wood says. “In short, a unified software stack that makes everything simple.” For example, using Roku’s streaming boxes and remote, you can display video from the new Roku cameras and doorbells on the big screen while watching a TV show or movie.

Anthony Wood [Photo: Roku]

For now, the software and services involved in these new products, including iPhone and Android apps, are a joint project between Roku and Wyze. Roku has taken responsibility for strengthening security on the software side, pointing out that the products support measures such as two-factor authentication and encryption. They are also certified by ioXt Alliance, an industry consortium for security.

You can understand why Roku may want to emphasize that it does not rely on Wyze to keep these Roku products safe. Wyze’s own record in that area is remarkably shaky: in 2019, a data breach exposed the personal information of 2.4 million customers. Separately, Wyze reportedly left a vulnerability that hackers could have used to access camera video unpatched for three years.

From a hardware standpoint, Wood says, “Wyze kind of matches what we’re looking for, which is good products at a low price. Integrating them into the Roku ecosystem is our value.” According to Roku, Wyze will manage cloud services that store video and some customer information, but won’t have access to that data.

The fact that Wyze is involved in the software aspect of these products is an act of opportunity rather than a long-term plan. “We will migrate the software to full Roku software over time,” Wood says.

Looking for killer products

In a way, Roku’s new smart-home ambitions aren’t exactly new. Wood started the company in 2002 after leaving ReplayTV, the DVR pioneer he founded. At first, he wasn’t quite sure what his new company was going to do.

“I was like, ‘Well, there’s a convergence of technologies like the Internet, consumer hardware and software — the problem is things are too hard to use, but they’re coming together and they’re going to enable new products and ecosystems in the home. “” he explains. “My goal was to go after that. I wasn’t quite sure what the killer products would be.”

In the early years, Roku released a box that displays still images in HD and an internet radio together with rolling out a digital signage company. In 2008, it introduced a box that could stream Netflix’s still-new video service. It was a skunkworks project Wood had run at Netflix’s request — which was originally going to be a Netflix product until Reed Hastings, the company’s CEO, decided that Netflix should be available. everywhere. As a Roku product, the box was a hit and the company that created it has kept the company busy ever since.

[Photo: Roku]

Fast-forward to the present, and there’s no shortage of smart home devices. But many devices are still too difficult to use, especially if you have multiple items and want them to work together.

The efforts of the tech giants in the category are certainly pockmarked with disappointment. For example, Apple’s original HomePod once looked like it could be a springboard for bigger smart-home ambitions, but it was only on the market for three years. Then there’s Google’s $3 billion acquisition of Nest in 2014, which didn’t lead to any of the transformative developments thought possible at the time.

[Photo: Roku]

That gives Roku plenty of opportunities to solve problems that others don’t have. “We’re launching with these first products, but we plan to open it up to others,” Wood says. “And our goal is to be part of the glue that makes it easy to have different kinds of smart devices. For example, we are not going to make dishwashers, but dishwashers must be integrated into this system.”

Make it up in volume

Roku’s streaming devices start at just $29excluding any discounts or the fact that many people have the software built into a smart TV. Without ads, premium content, licenses, and other services that allow Roku to monetize, Roku wouldn’t have a business. The smart home equipment plan includes “the same business model we have with streaming players, where we sell cheap hardware and then monetize services,” Wood says. “Our goal would be to license key platform components for free and enable cheaper price points.”

With streaming, Roku has lowered prices through techniques such as reducing the memory footprint required by the software so that it can run on cheaper hardware. The same approach would work in other smart-home categories, Wood says.

Could it be a mistake to take on the whole house for a company that until now has focused on doing one thing right? That risk is “a major concern for us,” he says. “We are very clear to ourselves that streaming is number one for us.” Plus, Wood claims that Roku is already a more expansive, complex venture than you would know from sitting at home and streaming some entertainment on its platform.

“We are a TV manufacturer,” he says. “We have a media company that makes original productions. We have an advertising technology platform that’s the size of a standalone advertising company. We already have this very complicated case. And so we are forced to create an organization that allows independence and delegation. It’s pretty easy for us to add another company without defocusing everyone.” (Almost five years ago, Roku announced plan to expand its TV-focused business to voice-activated whole-home audio; that didn’t go too far, but the company does sell home cinema soundbars and speakers.)

With this new step into additional product categories, Roku is changing someone else’s default devices, adding some software integration, and making them available through a single retailer. Even if they sell well, they’ll be a humble catchphrase at best, not a category-creating advancement like the first streaming box. But given enough time, the company, which has 63 million active user accounts, seems in a good position to do something more ambitious. Maybe even something that could help the whole smart home idea live up to its promise.

We have a vision to make that happen,” Wood says. “It’s just going to take a few years.”

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