Seven questions about Amazon's mystery streaming box

Amazon is rumored to be working on its own Roku-style video-streaming box. Here's what I'd like to know about it first.

Is there a Kindle TV box on the horizon?

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, the answer is yes. Amazon is said to be readying its own streaming-TV box to take on the likes of the Roku, Apple TV, Xbox, PlayStation -- and every TV manufacturer that now builds smart-TV apps like Netflix and Vudu directly into televisions.

The Seattle-based e-tailer already has an ambitious home video strategy. Amazon Prime customers get thousands of free movies and TV shows (in addition to free shipping of real-world goods) with the $79-per-year membership, and the company is ramping up production of original series as well. But ambition does not a successful TV strategy make -- just ask Google (Google TV) and even Apple (which still calls the Apple TV box a "hobby," while rumors of a "real" Apple HDTV remain nebulous.

With that in mind, we've come up with seven questions about Amazon's rumored streaming-video box. Here's what we'd like to know:

1. Will it offer an 'app store' with non-Amazon content?

It's all about the apps. Josh Miller/CNET

Amazon's Instant Video service is, arguably, neck and neck with Netflix, offering much of the same content for "free" to Amazon Prime members, as well as some notable non-Netflix exclusives ("Justified," "Falling Skies," "The Closer," and -- soon -- "Downton Abbey," to name a few). And unlike Netflix, it also offers the option to buy movies, TV episodes, and TV seasons a la carte -- cord-cutters can watch next-day episodes of "Mad Men," for instance.

But as great as Amazon Instant Video is, Netflix is still considered a must-have for most streaming customers. The same goes for YouTube and Pandora.

So, will Amazon offer those "competing" services on its box? Will it offer a take-it-or-leave-it handful of channels like Apple TV does? Or will it go for the "anything goes" open app store approach of Roku (with more than 700 channels and counting -- albeit a lot of niche-y stuff that's well outside the mainstream)?

2. Will it have games?

Look out, Xbox? James Martin/CNET

Amazon's Kindle tablets already have an Appstore (containing a subset of what you'll find in the Google Play store for open Android tablets). Not surprisingly, many of the hit apps are games.

Could the Amazon video box double as a gaming machine? Will there be a dedicated controller? Roku already offers a handful of games (including Angry Birds), but Apple hasn't gone there -- yet.

3. Will it do music, too?

Uploading music to Amazon Cloud Player. Screenshot by Karyne Levy/CNET

Amazon's Cloud Player service stores gigs of music "in the cloud" for anytime on-demand streaming. Apps for Android and iOS make it easy to access your entire music collection at the touch of an icon. And there's already a Roku app for the Cloud Player, too.

It's a safe bet Amazon would include Cloud Player access on its own box. But will the company allow third-party audio apps? Will services like Spotify, Rdio, and Mog be officially supported?

Or will Amazon finally launch its long-rumored music subscription service in concert with the new hardware?

Turning to the user experience: will Amazon take it to the next level and add Sonos-like tablet and smartphone control apps, so you can play music without having the TV screen on? Apple TV already does a great job of this with AirPlay. And unlike the new Roku 3 , it has an audio-only optical output.

4. Will it mirror or stream content from Kindle Fire tablets or other devices?

Tablet to TV at the touch of an icon. Apple

Speaking of AirPlay: will the Amazon box make it easy to stream photos, videos, and music from other devices to your TV? AirPlay is currently the industry standard for ease of use here -- streaming any audio or video from an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad is dead simple (so long as the app maker allows it -- and most do).

Roku's Play On Roku feature, built into its iOS and Android apps, also does a good job of getting photos and device-based music to your TV. But video streaming requires a separate app like Plex or Twonky. And -- unlike with iOS and Apple TV -- audio streaming isn't baked into every app.

Perhaps just as important is remote functionality, however. Will a Kindle Fire (or iOS or Android device) also be able to double as a Wi-Fi remote control? Nearly every major TV manufacturer -- as well as Apple and Roku -- already offers app control, so this seems like an easy win.

5. Will it be any better than Roku?

Amazon Instant Video on Roku. Roku

Note that we keep referring to Roku. That's because -- unlike Apple TV -- Roku boxes already offer the Amazon video and Cloud Player audio apps. Granted, the video app isn't as slick as the Amazon offering on the PS3, but it works well enough, even on the $50 Roku LT box. Will Amazon's own offering up the ante at all?

6. Will it even be a box?

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Apple TV and the Roku are small boxes the size of a hockey puck. But Roku has shrunk its offering even more, in the form of the Roku Streaming Stick , which plugs directly into a TV's HDMI port. The catch: it only works in MHL-enabled ports, which are only available on some newer HDTVs.

Still, if Amazon could miniaturize its "box" enough, it might not be a box at all -- and that could be a distinguishing factor, especially if that could be done without Roku's MHL limitation. Perhaps a regular HDMI stick, powered by USB.

7. How much will it cost?

This is the big one. Roku and Apple TV already offer excellent choices in the $50-to-$100 range. And other competitors like Netgear , D-Link, and Western Digital have competing boxes, as do Sony, Panasonic, LG, and Samsung -- some of which start as low as $40.

Can Amazon beat that price? Or can it even go "free" for new Prime subscribers? I'd say the box needs to be dirt cheap, or -- if it's competing directly with the Roku and Apple TV in the $100 range -- it needs to offer something truly compelling to distinguish itself from those rivals.

Time will tell

The Bloomberg story pegs the Amazon box as coming out this fall. But six months is an eternity in this business: by then, we'll also be on track for new, streaming-savvy Xbox and PlayStation consoles. Roku has already released its best box yet, the Roku 3, and Apple could always shake things up by opening up a real app store for its own Apple TV box.

In other words: stay tuned.

 

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