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Crowded web TV field awaits Apple

Doug Gross
  • Apple's revamped Apple TV device will join a crowded web TV consumer field
  • Roku, Boxee, TiVo and Google are among the major players streaming web content to TV
  • Analyst says Google and Apple will benefit from integration with other products
  • Competitors say they're confident their services can survive Apple's push

(CNN) -- With Wednesday's announcement that it will be revamping its web TV offerings, Apple has made its most serious push into an emerging, and increasingly crowded, field.

Google and TiVo, as well as lesser-known rivals like Boxee and Roku, are among the most visible players that offer -- or plan to offer -- set-top boxes or services that stream online content onto the user's television screen.

Whether Apple can jump to the front of this field with its new Apple TV box remains an open question that may not be settled for months, analysts say.

"It's a step forward for sure, but I don't think they did enough to separate themselves from the pack," said Michael Inouye, an industry analyst with ABI Research.

"No one's been the real outright success in it yet. There's nothing you can put your hat on, saying, 'These guys dominate the space' yet."

Web-TV integration systems let users stream content from the internet, like YouTube videos or Pandora music, to their televisions. Most systems also allow buying or renting network TV shows and streaming from movie sites like Netflix.

As Apple CEO Steve Jobs noted in his presentation Wednesday, these products -- including the original Apple TV device, launched in 2007 -- haven't caught on with mainstream audiences yet.

But it's easy to see why tech companies are making the move. The web seems nearly ubiquitous, but its user base still pales when compared with the estimated 4 billion television viewers worldwide.

Inouye said standalone set-top boxes have also struggled early on because other devices like Microsoft's Xbox, Sony's PlayStation and Blu-ray players offer some similar abilities.

As competitors responded to Apple's announcement, "confident" was the word that kept coming up.

"Roku is completely confident that our strategy of offering more features and lower cost than competitors continues to be the right plan," the company said in a written statement.

The same day as Apple's announcement, Roku -- a web TV pioneer when it debuted in 2008 -- cut the price of its standard-definition box to $59 and its HD-enabled box to $69.

At Boxee, where a new set-top box is expected in November, executives were emphasizing their device's ease of use.

"We all watched the Apple announcement," Boxee CEO Avner Ronen wrote in a blog post late Wednesday. "We walked away feeling strongly confident about the space it left for Boxee to compete.

"We have a different view of what users want in their living rooms. We are taking different paths to get there. The Boxee Box is going to be $100 more expensive than the Apple TV, but will give you the freedom to watch what you want."

Apple TV streams content mainly from the iTunes online store, while devices such as Boxee, Roku and TiVo Premiere can access material from other web sources, such as YouTube.

Many people who bought the first generation of Apple TV used Boxee software to bring in third-party content. Now, the Boxee Box will go head-to-head with Apple, a new position for a group that Ronen describes as mostly "Apple fanboys."

Google similarly defended its place in the market, while also taking a swipe at Apple's relatively closed platform.

"It's increasingly clear that the future of the web and the future of the living room are intertwined, as we see many players introduce new connected devices," said a statement from a Google spokesperson Thursday.

"However, we believe the future of TV is one where users can transform their traditional TV watching experience by seamlessly integrating the full potential of the open web -- as opposed to the partial, closed web. We look forward to sharing more in the coming weeks."

Inouye said that, in the long run, tech giants Google and Apple may have an advantage because they can couple their web TV offerings with other products.

"I think the difference they bring is the existing platforms already out there," he said. "Bring some of that to these devices, and it would be a huge boost to what you could do."

When it announced Google TV in May, Google said that apps written on its Android operating system for smartphones will also work on TV, and that the system will be open to outside developers who wish to create new apps specifically for televisions.

Apple TV allows integration with devices like the iPhone and iPad, letting users transfer video content from one of those devices to their television.

The system doesn't work with its smartphone operating system, meaning iPhone and iPad apps don't necessarily work on TV, but that could change.

"We're not there yet, but that seems to be the natural evolution of these devices and services," Inouye said. "Taking that to the big screen would definitely seem compelling."


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