Whichever company manages to put its set-top box or streaming device into your living room controls a lot of potential purchases.
When consumers choose Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) TV, Alphabet's (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Google Chromecast, Amazon's (NASDAQ:AMZN) Fire TV, or a Roku player they make a decision which involves more than just the cost of the device. They are also deciding to direct app purchases, movie rentals, and even recurring revenue shares from joining subscription streaming services to the company which makes the box or stick they select.
That's why for all the companies involved, it's not really about selling streaming players. In fact, it's hard to imagine that Apple TV, Fire TV, Chromecast, or Roku players are profitable on their own, Instead the streaming players are mini-stores operating in each user's living room. That's a potentially very lucrative revenue stream for each company which makes selling the most streaming devices extremely important.
Which company is winning?
For streaming player consumers it seems that they either want to cheap out with the least-expensive device or splurge on arguably the best (and certainly the most expensive) of the choices. That led to the interesting dichotomy where Google's $35 Chromecast has sold the most devices, capturing 35% (about 14.7 million) of the 42 million streaming boxes or sticks sold in 2015, according to Global Connected TV Device Vendor Market Share: Q4 2015 from Strategy Analytics (SA).
The researchers noted that the device's key appeal was its $35 price tag, which made it an impulse purchase in many cases. Apple TV however, which starts at $149 for its latest generation, sold the second most devices with Roku, and Amazon's offerings following behind.
Strategy Analytics did make it clear that while Google led sales, it was not the only choice for consumers.
"The mobile device [Chromecast] is not necessarily the center of the universe for everyone and devices such as Apple TV, Roku and the Amazon Fire TV continue to prove popular with those looking for a more traditional remote-based and UI driven TV experience," the company wrote.
Which company is really winning?
Even though Google led 2015 sales, Apple still has an overall lead in the marketplace. Going back to 2007, Apple dominates the market with 37 million units shipped with Chromecast following behind but gaining, Multichannel News reported. Roku has sold about 20 million of its various boxes and sticks while Amazon sits at somewhere below 10 million, according to the same article.
It's also worth noting that Smart TVs, not separate streaming devices accounted for the majority of all connected devices (54%) shipped in 2015, according to SA. But, whether it be Smart TVs or streaming devices, consumers seem open to experimentation.
"Ownership of connected TV devices is not restricted to one device over another," said SA senior research analyst Chirag Upadhyay. "Our research shows that U.S. broadband homes own an average of 2.3 such devices giving them multiple means by which to stream video and audio content to the TV. While some consumers will have a favoured method, we find that most households are switching between different devices depending on the user and type of content being consumed."
What does this mean?
It's good news for Google and Apple while being perhaps neutral for Roku and most certainly disappointing for Amazon. The numbers show that for a decent percentage of the consumer base price is a driving force though it's a bit odd that the vastly inferior Chromecast outsells the low-end Fire TV Stick, which only costs $4.99 more. (For $39.99 Amazon's device comes with a remote control, while Google's must be controlled with a phone, computer, or tablet).
In Apple's case it has to be encouraged that the high price of the new Apple TV did not scare consumers away. That bodes well for the company's prospects if it eventually lowers prices.
However you look at it this is a turf war which is still developing. It's possible that Chromecast will be a gateway device for some consumers -- a cheap way into the technology which convinces them they want something better. That would be bad news for Google and a positive for everyone else given that the search giant does not have a step-up model from Chromecast.
Google has won the battle, but the war looks like it will go on for a long time with there being no clear winner yet and with all four competitors still in contention.
Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Daniel Kline owns shares of Apple. He owns pretty much every major streaming device and prefers Fire TV. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), Amazon.com, and Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.