Meet Matchstick, Mozilla's $25 Chromecast alternative

Is the world big enough for another streaming Internet dongle? Mozilla and Matchstick sure hope so, as they announce the first Firefox OS device that's not a smartphone.

Seth Rosenblatt Former Senior Writer / News
Senior writer Seth Rosenblatt covered Google and security for CNET News, with occasional forays into tech and pop culture. Formerly a CNET Reviews senior editor for software, he has written about nearly every category of software and app available.
Seth Rosenblatt
5 min read

The Matchstick hopes to convince developers and consumers alike that its open streaming Internet and media platform is more desirable than the Chromecast. Matchstick

Mozilla is expanding beyond its Firefox browser and trying its hand in the suddenly hot streaming video business.

Its take: the MatchStick HDMI streaming stick, which will sell for a limited time through Kickstarter at a starting price of $12 before it goes to retail. It's final price of $25 sets its sights on the Chromecast, the $35 streaming dongle from search giant Google. Matchstick runs on Firefox OS, the open source mobile operating system built by Mozilla on Firefox's underlying engine.

Mozilla has a keen interest in being known for more than just an Internet browser. The nonprofit Web advocacy organization receives a vast majority of its funding from Google, which also offers a competing browser in Chrome. Over the last two years, Mozilla has diversified into smartphones with its Firefox OS and now Matchstock in the hopes of getting support for open Web standards into more devices and more hands.

However, the Matchstick enters an already competitive field. Beyond the Chromecast, the streaming media space is crowded with Amazon's Fire TV, and market leaders Apple TV and Roku, all of which have long since secured the kinds of content partnerships such as Netflix and Hulu essential to the success of any entrant in the field. While Matchstick is promising to have them by its January launch, it doesn't appear to have secured them yet.

Both the hardware and software for Matchstick are open-source, and the device is available today through Kickstarter on a tiered preorder system. Through the promotional material, it appears the Matchstick will be available in black or white, although that hasn't been confirmed by the company.

Jack Chang, the US general manager of Matchstick and the chief operating officer of its sister company 9x9tv, which makes apps for televisions and is also known as Flipr, said that developer interest in Matchstick will drive consumer adoption.

"Due to Matchstick's unique openness, we believe it will lead to a greater number of cool apps and lower price. These are tangible benefits a consumer will readily embrace," he told CNET. Matchstick has its headquarters in San Jose, Calif., with an engineering team located in Beijing.

Chang said that people will be able to use Matchstick not only to stream video and audio to their TVs from the Internet, but to enjoy a fuller Web experience that includes online shopping, voting, and participating in in surveys.

Prototype of the Matchstick, first tweeted by a Mozilla developer in June. Christian Heilmann via Twitter

"The possibilities are endless," he said. The Matchstick will work with Android, iOS, Firefox, and Chrome. The process by which apps are sent to the receiver dongle, by the way, is called "flinging."

The Matchstick starts at $12 for the first 500 consumers who pre-order through the Kickstarter, to be delivered in January 2015. An unlimited number of consumers will be able to preorder the Matchstick for $18, also to be delivered in January.

If you miss the Kickstarter window, you'll be able to buy one online for $25, $10 cheaper than a Chromecast, at some point after the preorders have been shipped.

"This is exactly what Firefox was and is built for," said Mozilla's Chris Lee, the Firefox OS director of product. He added that Mozilla didn't have to make any changes to Firefox OS to get it to work with the Matchstick hardware.

The Matchstick dongle is so similar to the Chromecast that its makers are making a central part of their pitch to developers that it's the anti-Chromecast.

"It's better than Chromecast," extols the promo video on the Kickstarter page, which humorously shows Matchstick testers getting thrown out of an Ikea furniture store for using the Ikea living room sets to test the Matchstick -- and asks for money so they can "shoot a real commercial."

Google declined to comment.

Matchstick has made its hardware schematic available to all developers for free, part of its open platform promise. Matchstick

As for other competitors, Chang dismissed the idea that the Matchstick will have to compete with Roku's streaming media stick.

"There is no 'casting' capability in a Roku dongle," he said. "A Roku dongle is essentially a Roku box packed into a USB stick."

But for most consumers, what matters most is seeing their favorite services supported. And that's not a done deal for Matchstick.

Matchstick's appeal for apps

Matchstick and Mozilla are going to great lengths to get developers on board with their new dongle, which is essential given that they're going up against Google's popular Chromecast. A developer giveaway program will deliver around 300 Matchstick prototypes to app developers, Chang said, and will be followed by a developer event in November at Mozilla's San Francisco office.

Up to another 250 developers can order a prototype through the Kickstarter for a minimum pledge of $24 to be shipped in November, two months before everybody else can get one. It includes early access to the Matchstick Software Development Kit and Application Programming Interfaces required to build apps for the dongle, and Matchstick developer support.

Most existing Chromecast apps, Chang said, should take about an hour to recompile for the Matchstick. Matchstick is fully compatible with all Chromecast 1.0 apps, such as YouTube, Photowall, and This Week in Tech, and code compatible with Chromecast 2.0 apps, which means that developers can recompile the app after changing "only a few lines of code," said the Kickstarter page.

Matchstick is built on a dual-core Rockchip 3066 processor, has 4 gigabytes of onboard storage, 1 gigabyte of DDR3 memory, and supports Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n. The Kickstarter page claims that this is better hardware than the Chromecast to ensure better video playback and game support, although the open nature of the Matchstick schematics means that if you have the technical background, you can roll your own Matchstick.

Matchstick is promising to support many popular online media services at launch that already work with the Chromecast, but if it's got partners lined up, Matchstick isn't talking. Matchstick

On its Kickstarter page, Matchstick promises that it will have major content partners lined up by the time the dongle is shipped to consumers in January. Chief among them is Netflix, which makes up around one-third of all North American Internet traffic by some metrics.

Although Chang did not respond directly to a question about Netflix support, the Netflix logo appears three times in the same Matchstick promotional image for supported services, the only one to do so. If Matchstick isn't talking to Netflix yet, they ought to be.

"We got this!" the Kickstarter description cheers coming support for existing, popular streaming media services.

Given that Chang promises it will be easy for developers to adapt apps with existing Chromecast support to the Matchstick, for his sake he better be right or consumers won't care.

Update at 9:46 a.m. Pacific time Google declined to comment.

Update at 8:37 a.m. Pacific time with additional background details.