Roku is cracking open access to its Internet set-top device to third-party content providers -- adding 10 partners to its "Channel Store" this week -- as the company takes a page from Apple's iPhone App Store.
The Roku player, launched in May 2008, initially provided access only to Netflix's streaming-video service. Since then it has added access to video downloads from Amazon.com and MLB.tv's out-of-market Internet TV service.
Now Roku is introducing the Channel Store and the 10 new free channels: Blip.tv, Facebook Photos, Flickr, FrameChannel, Mediafly, MobileTribe, Motionbox, Pandora, Revision3 and TWiT. The Channel Store feature allows users to customize which channels they want to see on their menu.
Roku CEO Anthony Wood said the Channel Store strategy "will open new customer-acquisition avenues" with a wider array of content offerings. "Because we have created an open platform for development, customers can expect even more new content channels in the near future," he added.
The company in the next six weeks will publish a Web-based software development kit (SDK) for any content provider to create a Roku "channel," according to director of corporate communications Brian Jaquet. He said there isn't a fee to add a channel to the Roku service but added that the company reserves the right to approve all channels (the way Apple does for its App Store).
"We are a gatekeeper in the sense that we want to make sure it works, and that you have the rights to the content," Jaquet said. "If you want to put up South Park, you better be Viacom or someone else who the distribution rights to that."
Roku's Channel Store supports different business models, according to the company, including subscriptions (like MLB.tv and Netflix), pay-per-view or download-to-own (like Amazon.com) and ad-supported content.
Boxee is another startup developing an open Internet TV set-top platform. While Boxee's service has been entirely software-based to date, it's planning to offer its own set-tops in the future and the company has likened its strategy to the Apple App Store.
Roku has sold fewer than 1 million set-tops to date; Jaquet said only that it has "hundreds of thousands of customers."
The company offers three models: a $79.99 standard-definition-only box with composite output and 802.11b/g wireless; a $99.99 version with HD outputs and 802.11b/g; and the $129.99 "HD XR" unit that includes 802.11n and a USB port.
Netflix had hired Wood, founder of DVR startup ReplayTV, in 2007 to create an Internet set-top for streaming videos to the TV. Subsequently the video-rental company scrapped that idea and decided on a partnership strategy, whereupon Wood returned to Roku.
Privately held Roku's investors include Wood, Netflix and venture-capital firm Menlo Ventures. The company is based in Saratoga, Calif.
The Roku players are available to order from the company's Web site as well as Amazon.com. In addition to digital video players, Roku also sells a line of Internet radio line called SoundBridge.