History repeats itself, only this time it’s not Google leveraging the popularity of YouTube against Amazon and Fire TVs, but against Roku and new Roku devices. Google has stated that it will be removing the YouTube app from the Roku channel store on December 9th, which will prevent new and factory reset Roku devices from accessing the video service, according to Variety. This is a result of negotiations between Google and Roku regarding app distribution terms going nowhere for the past 6 months, which has already resulted in the removal of YouTube TV from the Roku channel store.
The dispute between Roku and Google over the YouTube TV app, and now the YouTube app, goes back to at least April, when Roku’s deal to distribute YouTube TV expired without a new agreement being reached. This resulted in Roku removing YouTube TV from its channel store, preventing new devices from installing it. Roku devices that already had YouTube TV installed continued to have access to the app and service. Google responded by providing access to YouTube TV through the separate YouTube app on Roku devices.
Now Google is threatening to do the removing with the upcoming removal of the YouTube app from the Roku channel store in just over a month. Google has not stated that it will be blocking access to YouTube on Roku devices that already have YouTube installed, but it certainly has that ability, since that’s what it threatened on Fire TV devices at the start of 2018 when Amazon and Google bumped heads.
Back then, Amazon responded to the impending loss of YouTube by releasing the Silk Browser, followed by Firefox releasing its browser, on Fire TV devices just days before Google’s deadline. This allowed Fire TV users to continue to access YouTube through its web-based TV interface, which was virtually identical to the regular YouTube app, since all TV-based YouTube apps are just browsers loading a YouTube website anyway. Amazon continued to improve the browser-based access to YouTube with improvements like 4K support, voice controls, and support for casting videos. The disagreement ended about a year and a half later when official YouTube and YouTube TV apps from Google returned to Fire TVs in 2019.
Should Google go through with its threat to remove the YouTube app or block access on Roku devices, Roku will not be able to circumvent the blocking of YouTube through a browser as Amazon did. That’s because YouTube has since taken down its web-based TV interface, most likely to prevent any future streaming device manufacturer from using the exact type of workaround that Amazon used. If Roku creates a browser app to access YouTube.com, the experience will likely be horrible, since YouTube will likely serve the desktop version of its site. Roku could choose to spoof the browser user agent of a competing streaming device, which may trick YouTube into serving its TV interface to a Roku-made browser, but it would surely just be a matter of time before Google caught on and resumed blocking access.