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Roku Faces Off Against Google TV on Store Shelves

By Anders Bylund – Aug 12, 2021 at 8:41AM

Key Points

  • Two media-streaming software platforms enter the ring.
  • Only one leaves unless they find a market equilibrium that lets them coexist.
  • We are about to learn more precisely what your average consumer really wants their streaming software to look like.

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TV maker TCL Electronics is creating a grand market experiment right now. The results will show us where the media-streaming market is headed in the long haul.

Consumer electronics specialist TCL Electronics Holdings (TCLHF 0.02%) just dropped a big clue about the future of media-streaming platforms. The longtime Roku (ROKU 1.59%) collaborator has introduced a brand new lineup of premium TV sets where Roku's software is replaced by Google TV -- a rival solution from technology giant Alphabet (GOOG -0.44%) (GOOGL -0.55%).

Here's what TCL's announcement means. Spoiler alert: I think it's a big deal.

What's new?

TCL's Google TV units are already available via presale in a launch partnership with electronics retail veteran Best Buy (BBY 0.15%). The retailer's online product information and ordering pages make it crystal clear that TCL is slapping two different software packages into essentially identical TV sets.

5-series QLED 4K sets and 6-series mini-LED QLED TVs can be purchased with Google TV or Roku at the click of a drop-down menu, and at the same price. The Roku versions are typically ready for immediate pickup at your local Best Buy store, while the Google TV option amounts to signing up for a notification when the hardware becomes available.

The hardware-based feature sets for each product family are comparable to a fault. The only real differences I could find are an extra HDMI port on the Roku version of the TCL Series 5 sets, while the Google TV variant of the same product supports gaming-friendly variable refresh rates. That's about it.

The two user interfaces are very different, though. Roku's eponymous operating system offers a clean grid of supported media-streaming apps sprinkled with a generous dose of the company's advertising efforts and the in-house Roku Channel. By contrast, the Android-based Google TV portal supports thousands of Android apps, and the home screen bends over backward to suggest what the user might want to watch next.

Two people watching a big-screen TV on the couch.

Image source: Getty Images.

The big picture

TCL's executives insist that TCL remains committed to its successful Roku partnership for the long haul. Google TV isn't taking over the whole product portfolio. Instead, this software gives TCL's customers a choice between two markedly different software platforms. The company expects the media platform market to boil down to these two choices in the long run. TCL sure isn't lifting a finger to help any other software maker get a foot in the door, anyhow.

I think this moment will be remembered as an important turning point in the streaming media industry. Consumers will have an apples-to-apples choice between Roku or Google TV on essentially identical TV hardware for the first time. One option may push the other one out of the market in the long run, or the two choices might establish a relatively peaceful balance in the end.

TCL is one of the largest names in TV hardware today, and the company is introducing Google TV options for some of its most popular product lines. That imposing market position makes this experiment game-changing and instructive. Consumers will vote with their wallets, and I will be surprised if we don't see the two rivals settling down for a lengthy coexistence. There is room for a few winners here, and TCL is doing its best to show us how the broader market will shake out.

Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. Anders Bylund owns shares of Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), and Roku. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), and Roku. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Stocks Mentioned

Roku Stock Quote
$60.73 (1.59%) $0.95
Alphabet Stock Quote
$100.44 (-0.55%) $0.55
Best Buy Stock Quote
Best Buy
$86.60 (0.15%) $0.13
Alphabet Stock Quote
$100.83 (-0.44%) $0.45
TCL Multimedia Technology Holdings Ltd. Stock Quote
TCL Multimedia Technology Holdings Ltd.
$0.41 (0.02%) $0.00

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