January 6, 2011 at 3:30 pm

CES 2011: Roku Expands as TV Music App Platform

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA — Apps are no longer just for smartphones and tablets at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, as vendors look to integrate them into the television and car (although Whirlpool stopped short of including them in its washing machines, much to our disappointment).

Among these, Roku — a veteran up-start television set-top box that now competes with behemoths like Apple, Google, and soon Microsoft to be consumers’ app platform of choice for the living room — has been expanding its selection of music apps, following the surprise success of the music service Pandora on Roku’s video-oriented platform.

“The Roku player started out as a Netflix box, and I’d still say the primary use is for watching movies and TV shows that are streamed over the internet,” Roku marketing head Chuck Seiber told Evolver.fm. “But when we added Pandora, it immediately became our second-most-popular content source on the box, and since then, we’ve added the MOG service, TuneIn Radio, Last.fm, Soma.fm, MP3Tunes — all of these different music applications are showing up — some are subscription and some are free.”

People who try a paid music service such as MOG on an embedded device such as Roku are more likely to subscribe and stay subscribed than people who access the same service on their computers, according to Seiber. We suspect this has something to do with better sound in the living room due to surround sound speakers there, as well as the fact that all of this private (i.e. computer/headphone) listening has left a vacuum within the home when it comes to music within the home.

As of today, Roku has 135 television apps in total, including music apps – an impressive tally, because all of these are content apps, somewhat akin to channels, rather than the one-off, sometimes insubstantial apps that comprise a healthy portion of what’s available for mobile phones. However, Google is definitely working on a version of Google TV that can run apps natively, the same way Roku does, and Apple has said publically that it is contemplating doing the same.

Smart consumers tend to follow the herd when it comes to choosing a smartphone or other app platform. So where does that leave Roku, when it comes to the television?

For starters, the company offers a free developers’ kit that lets app developers build for the Roku platform, and Seiber points out that Roku’s 135 television apps currently beats the stuffing out of Apple TV and Google TV in terms of app selection, and measures up pretty well against Samsung’s Widget Gallery of television apps.

“I don’t actually know who’s in the lead,” said Seiber. “Here’s what I do know: When we launched the Pandora application on our TV [set-top box], within a matter of weeks, we were the number one device streaming Pandora into homes other than cellphones and PCs, and it happened really quickly.”

Will Roku hang on after the two 800-pound gorillas waiting in the wings take the stage with their own television app stores? Only time will tell. But given current Roku’s lead in television apps over Apple TV and Google TV – and the fact that many of these platforms will run more or less the same set of apps – there could be room enough in the television app store market for Roku and other smaller players.