By Harry McCracken | Sunday, November 22, 2009 at 6:00 pm
When Roku introduced its Internet TV box in 2008, it offered a grand total of one content source–Netflix–and was in fact sometimes called the Netflix Player. Then it began adding options: Amazon Video on Demand and Major League Baseball. Tonight, it’s announcing that it plans to add a bevy of stuff via its new Channel Store, which will allow an array of providers to bring their content to Roku’s box, and therefore to your TV.
The Channel Store in its debut form–which will roll out to existing boxes over the next couple of weeks–is both promising and pretty modest. There are ten new channels, including some well-known ones (Blip.TV, Facebook Photos, Flickr, Pandora, Revision3′s TV shows, and Twit.TV) and some lesser-known options (FrameChannel, Mediafly, MobileTribe, and Motionbox). They’re all free, and you choose to add any or all of them to your box through a process that involves activating them in a computer’s Web browser (and which occasionally gets a little cumbersome–MobileTribe, a social-network aggregator, makes you paintstakingly enter social-network login info on your TV using the Roku’s remote).
Like Roku’s existing channels, some of these new ones offer video pure and simple, including Twit.TV and Revision3. But Pandora brings music to Roku for the first time. And other channels, including Facebook Photos, Flickr, and MobileTribe, feel like rudimentary applets, since they bring parts of services you use on other devices to Roku. Motionbox even lets you upload videos that can be viewed by anyone who owns a Roku box.
They’re really rudimentary in some instances–as far as I can figure out, the only way to advance to the Facebook photos of a friend whose name begins with “Z” is to skip past every other friend, one friend at a time–but the move beyond video puts the Roku box into at least vague, indirect competition with TV widget platforms such as Yahoo’s Connected TV.
Roku executives told me that they expect a lot more channels to come online quickly, although for now it’s not going to be a free for all: they’ll all be approved by Roku, and there’s stuff the company won’t approve on grounds of taste. The initial lineup of channels is certainly enough to whet my appetite for what’s to come, and the addition of Pandora instantly broadens the Roku box’s appeal. The Channel Store will be available on all three Roku variants: the $129.99 Roku HD-XR (with Wireless-N connectivity), the $99,99 Roku HD, and the $79.99 Roku SD.
Even though adding each channel involves some work, the Roku box still rates high for ease-of-use overall, and even the top-of-the-line HD-XR is aggressively priced. With Apple TV largely stuck in limbo and Vudu seemingly focusing on getting its cool service built into TVs and other devices, Roku is the Internet TV box whose capabilities and content mix are evolving the most rapidly–and if the Channel Store catches on, that evolution could go into fast-forward mode in the months to come.