Roku and Google are currently in a dispute which may result in the YouTube TV app being removed from Roku devices. At the core of this dispute are features that Google wants Roku devices to support. Neither company is being overtly specific about the features in question but Roku says they “harm users” and are “anticompetitive,” while Google says the features “ensure a high-quality and consistent experience for our viewers.” The more we learn about these requested features, the more it seems like Amazon’s Fire TV devices already support them, and rightfully so.
Only Roku and Google know the exact details of their dispute, so I can’t be certain that the features and capabilities discussed below are the ones being requested by Google and the ones being rejected by Roku. I’m piecing this together from statements that various media outlets claim Roku has made to them, but, unfortunately, Roku’s exact quotes are often not listed.
Roku told Variety that “Google wants to prevent Roku from displaying search results from third-party services if a user has the YouTube app open.” This is likely what Roku considers to be “manipulating consumer search results” and what they are calling access to sensitive user data, where the data, in this case, is the search term.
While Roku is doing its best to make this feature sound horrible and scary, it’s exactly how the Fire TV has been doing things for years. Amazon provides development tools, called the Video Skills Kit (VSK), that app developers can implement in order to improve the search experience for their app. When implemented by the app developer, if an app is open and in the foreground, the Fire TV will direct voice searches to the open app instead of kicking the user out to the Fire TV’s universal search results. Apps like Netflix, YouTube, and Discovery+, just to name a few, already take advantage of this capability on Fire TV devices. With those apps open, performing a voice search rightfully, in my opinion, keeps you in the app and shows only results for the open app. That’s just a downright better experience than kicking you out every time and I wish more apps implemented the behavior.
Roku told Axios that “Google has asked it to favor YouTube music results from voice commands made on the Roku remote while the YouTube app is open, even if the user’s music preference is set to default to another music app.” I assume this is what Roku is calling “predatory, anticompetitive and discriminatory terms,” but, once again, this is actually the current behavior on Fire TV devices and, I would say, it is certainly the preferred way of doing things.
On Fire TV devices, with the YouTube app open and in the foreground, if you say “Play [SONG TITLE]” into the voice remote, instead of kicking the request out to Alexa which would play the request through your default music service, the first YouTube search result for that song is played instead. Amazon, who created the YouTube app for Fire TV in conjunction with Google, correctly recognizes that if you have YouTube open, you’re likely looking to play a music video and not just the audio of the requested song, so they keep you in the YouTube app. Considering that enough people use YouTube for music playback to merit the launch of the standalone YouTube Music service, I’d say that keeping users in the app for music requests is the better behavior.
Lastly, Roku says that Google wants them to “agree to future hardware specs” for future Roku devices. This is likely what Roku is referring to when they say that Google’s terms will “inflate the cost of our products” and “cost you more.” While this is the vaguest part of the requests, it almost certainly refers to Google wanting future Roku devices to support AV1 video decoding, which is a requirement they’ve already imposed on Android TV device manufacturers.
AV1 is the open and royalty-free video codec that Google is backing, along with Amazon, Apple, ARM, Facebook, Huawei, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Netflix, Hulu, Nvidia, Samsung, and others, as part of the Alliance for Open Media. It’s an attempt to shift the industry from using the H265 HEVC video codec, which is a proprietary format that requires the payment of royalties to its patent holders.
While adding support for AV1 slightly increases the cost of streaming hardware, which is why Roku is likely objecting to supporting it, it would likely reduce the total cost of streaming as a whole because streaming services won’t have to pay royalties for the proprietary closed formats that currently dominate the industry. Think of it like paying a bit more for the hybrid version of a car so that you can save on the cost of gas in the long run.
AV1 is a relatively newer video format that mainly affects 4K-capable devices. None of the existing stand-alone Fire TV models support it because they pre-date the format, since the newest 4K Fire TV device was the Fire TV Cube released in 2019. The newest Fire TV devices of any kind are the Fire TV Edition televisions released in 2020/2021 and those do support AV1 video.
It’s probably safe to assume that the next stand-alone 4K-capable Fire TV box, stick, cube, or whatever it ends up being, will certainly be the first stand-alone model to support AV1 video. At least, I certainly hope it will. Roku, given its track record of being among the slowest streaming device manufacturers to support new formats, will likely avoid supporting the format for as long as it can. After all, it was only this month that they finally announced HDR10+ support, which Fire TV devices have supported since 2018.
Ultimately, it seems to me like Google is asking Roku to make its devices more like Fire TV devices because they recognize that it is ultimately better for the user. Taking a bit of control away from the device manufacturer and giving it to the app developers, in these specific cases, results in a better user experience. Amazon has already done the legwork necessary for these improvements way before Google needed to ask for them and it sounds like Roku doesn’t want to be forced (i.e., shell out development costs) to do the same.