Set-top boxes: is simple better?

I blogged a few weeks ago about my positive experience with my new Roku, and it appears that the battle of dedicated Internet connected set-top boxes is starting again.  (Note that gaming consoles such as the XBox360 or PS3 could also be considered competition in this space.)  Specifically, Apple has announced its newly updated AppleTV, D-Link will soon be launching their Boxee device and Logitech will be releasing the Revue based on GoogleTV.  All of these boxes are designed to dominate your living room by providing access to rich Internet content.  However, the strategies used by these vendors vary.  The Revue and Boxee bring a full Internet experience while the Roku and AppleTV focus on a streamlined approach.

The living room has always been a consumer electronics battleground.  An early company targeting the space was WebTV who sold a set-top box that accessed the Internet and provided a web browsing on the TV.  WebTV’s devices were relatively complex and included a dial-up modem (limited broadband back then), a traditional remote control and a wireless keyboard.  The company was not successful and was purchased by Microsoft for very little.  I believe that the device was overly complex for the living room and did not provide a quality Internet experience.  Ironically, Logitech and D-Link appear to be following a similar path.

The Revue from Logitech and the Boxee from D-Link provide provide a broad Internet experience with complete access to web content.  In a nod to WebTV and in recognition of the breadth of functionality, both platforms include remote controls with full QWERTY keyboards.  Today’s living rooms are already inordinately complex with multiple high tech displays and components and I wonder if the Revue and Boxee, like WebTV before them, are trying to do too much.  Most of their target consumers probably own a computer and maybe even an iPad. Would these people really want their TV to duplicate the Internet experience?  In my opinion, consumers would be better served with simpler solutions that focus exclusively on content that TV viewers are likely to want.

Roku and Apple have taken a different approach.  Rather than providing a full Internet experience, the companies’ devices enable access to a subset of content that is relevant to a TV or stereo user.  The streamlined approach obviates the need for a keyboard, and enables the creation of highly intuitive interfaces that are solely optimized for playing audio and video.  The result is a small and unobtrusive device that can be used by techies and non-techies alike.

The design objectives for the Revue/Boxee and Roku/AppleTV are very different.  While I am a techie, I believe that the multitude of devices in my entertainment system is too much.  The thought of adding a Revue/Boxee to my environment is more than my family needs.  (However, I reserve my right to change my mind on this.  I love gadgets and if one of these devices is truly a home run then I may need to get one!)  The simple functionality of the Roku is a much better fit for us – it incorporates the applications that I want with a GUI that is simple yet powerful.

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