In the world of set-top boxes, Roku is hitting the gas, while Apple could be mistaken for asleep at the wheel.
In US households last year, nearly half of all purchases of set-top boxes -- small electronic devices that stream online video and music on your TV -- were Rokus, and Roku devices continue to show the greatest usage among people who stream media to their TVs, according to a report from researcher Parks Associates Wednesday.
Apple TV was a distant second in both categories, and the gap between Roku and Apple TV is widening.
Streaming-media devices have grown in prevalence in the last year, with giants Amazon and Google joining Roku and Apple in offering their own entrants to the race. Spurring the interest is video's migration to the Internet -- see Netflix's morphing into the "world's leading Internet television network" and the massive traffic streaming World Cup matches. But the opportunity in the sector means greater competition, and power shifts could easily shuffle who leads the pack.
Parks' latest report found that 44 percent of US broadband households with a streaming media player use a Roku the most, compared with 26 percent that opt for Apple TV, an 18 point difference. Last year, the gap was 13 points. Roku's 46 percent of 2013 US set-top purchases was 20 points ahead of Apple TV, after being 16 points up the year before.Parks' director of research, Barbara Kraus, said that multiple factors have allowed Roku to outpace Apple in US sales and usage, including Roku's close association with Netflix, the most popular streaming-video service; an unmatched roster of more than 1,700 channel apps; a choice of models at different prices; and good marketing.
Yet a key element working in Roku's favor is the fact Apple itself doesn't pay much attention to Apple TV, she said. The $99 Apple TV has been more of a bit player than a showstopper in the company's device pipeline, going more than two years without a hardware refresh to a new generation.
But consumer awareness of the category is getting a boost as the growth of set-top boxes amps up and with the emergence of big new competitors like Amazon's $99 Fire TV earlier this year, and that could bring changes. "It could awaken the sleeping giant that is Apple," Kraus said.
"When you look in this country, Apple always said that Apple TV was a bit of a hobby. Now that they're making some nice media sales from it, I think we'll see more from them," she said in an interview with CNET News, referencing Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook's February statement that Apple TV accounted for more than $1 billion in content sales last year. "I think the fact that it was just a hobby was a benefit for Roku."
Roku's lead in the US also overlooks Apple's strength worldwide. This year, Roku -- which sells in the US, Canada, the UK and Ireland -- disclosed it has sold about 8 million units through 2013, while Apple said it has sold about 20 million units worldwide as of April.
The latest comparison from Parks focused on set-top boxes and didn't factor in the popularity of stick-like streaming dongles like Google's $35 Chromecast. Chromecast sold as many units in six months last year as Roku did all of 2013, but Parks has also found Chromecast usage is slipping.
Park predicted that although Apple TV and Roku sell the majority of streaming devices, Amazon Fire TV is likely to become a major player and the streaming sticks like Chromecast will provide more competition. The devices that prosper will be those that provide the best combination of "can't miss content" with a simple and intuitive interface, according to the researcher.
Overall, broadband household penetration of streaming media devices increased from 14 percent in 2013 to 19 percent in 2014. Parks projected more than one out of four US households will have a streaming media player by next year, and global sales for streaming media players will reach nearly 50 million by 2017, hitting US penetration in excess of 38 percent.