Roku and Amazon have different ideas about over-the-air DVR

Over-the-air DVR might always be a niche, even as antennas make a comeback.

Jared Newman / IDG

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Antennas are making a big comeback as more people cut cable TV, but that doesn’t mean over-the-air DVR is going mainstream along with them.

Last week, I interviewed executives from both Roku and Amazon’s Fire TV group ahead of some hardware news they announced this week. (The short version: Roku and Amazon are both releasing soundbars later this year with their respective streaming software inside, plus Amazon has new smart TVs and a revamped Fire TV Cube on the way.) Out of my own curiosity, I also asked them how their respective companies feel about over-the-air DVR.

Amazon released the Fire TV Recast DVR last November, but it’s frequently gone on sale since then and hasn’t received any major updates aside from external USB drive support. Roku, meanwhile, provides a TV guide for antenna users on its smart TVs, and it allows for basic pause and rewind functions if you plug in a USB flash drive, but it hasn’t extended those features to its streaming players or provided a full DVR.

All of which makes me suspect that over-the-air DVR will remain a niche product, best handled by smaller companies such as TiVo, Nuvyyo (which makes the Tablo DVR), and Plex. While Amazon might still try to build on its work with the Fire TV Recast, it doesn’t sound like Roku will try to take over-the-air integration much further.

Amazon: Leaving the DVR door open

Unlike a traditional DVR, the Fire TV Recast can sit anywhere in the house and does not plug directly into a television. Instead, if pulls in channels from an antenna and streams them to Fire TV devices around the house. Although the Recast performs well and has no subscription fees, my gut feeling is that it’s not meeting the company’s expectations. Since launching last fall, it has frequently gone on sale, including a $100 discount on both the dual- and quad-tuner models, around Amazon Prime Day.

Sandeep Gupta, Amazon’s vice president of product development for Fire TV, didn’t quite say the Recast is a failure for Amazon, but he acknowledged that it has “challenges,” including the price point and the fact that people are generally watching more TV through streaming services.

“I think what we’re trying to figure out with Recast is, how do we make it more accessible, create more learning around it, and broaden the audience,” Gupta said. “It’s a great product, and the people that use it love it. But I think our goal is to learn from what we’ve done and continue to figure out how to expand the audience for that type of product.”

recasthome2 Jared Newman / IDG

Channels from Amazon’s Fire TV Recast integrate with the home screen on Fire TV devices.

It’s hard to say what that could mean, but I wonder if Amazon is interested in finding other sources of video to record beyond just over-the-air streams. We’ve already seen some attempts at this from other DVR services (most notably Channels DVR, which now records TV Everywhere streams from cable channels), and judging by the feedback I get from readers, there’s a lot of interest in a DVR that works with streaming sources. The big challenge would be getting content providers to support such a thing.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound like broader platform support is on the immediate agenda either way, as Gupta says it would require a lot of work by companies like Roku or Apple to support the Recast’s tools and protocols, or APIs. And for whatever Amazon is working on, it’ll take a while to develop.

“We don’t have a lot of details to share right now, but I think you’ll see more from us in the next year or so in terms of what our plans our to extend the product,” Gupta says.

Roku: All-in on streaming

Roku has a bit of a history with DVR. Its founder, Anthony Wood, was the CEO of Replay TV, an early TiVo rival, and Mark Ely, who I interviewed last week, was the founder of Really Simple Software, whose now-defunct Simple.TV networked tuner and DVR were similar to what Tablo and Fire TV Recast offer today.

Despite that history, however, Roku doesn’t seem interested in revisiting DVR hardware itself. The extent of its over-the-air integration is a TV guide and time-shifting features on smart TVs that run Roku software.

“There are good third-party products out there that work well with Roku, which is really great,” Ely said. “And I think philosophically, at Roku, Roku likes DVR and likes over-the-air content, but it’s really been more about streaming.”

rokusmartguide Jared Newman / TechHive

Roku TVs offer a solid TV guide for over-the-air channels, but not much else.

Ely points out that live TV streaming services such as YouTube TV and Sling TV have their own DVRs built into their respective apps. And besides, he said, with antennas come a lot of potential reception issues, which might require some technical expertise to solve.

“We’ll kind of see how things evolve, but I think generally what we’ve seen is that if you can deliver that content through streaming, then you can guarantee that someone’s going to get it, and they’re going to have a good experience with it,” Ely said.

That might be a disappointing answer for Roku users, but I think it generally explains why—aside from Amazon—the major streaming platforms have kept antennas at arm’s length. Even in close proximity to broadcast towers, reception can depend on a lot of factors, from the type of antenna to building materials to outdoor obstructions. And while streaming video isn’t foolproof either, weak internet connections are easier to troubleshoot than bad antenna reception. My guess is that Roku, Apple, and Google would rather not face complaints from customers when an over-the-air recording fails, especially when the mass-market potential for such products is unproven.

In the end, that’s probably a relief for the likes of Tablo, Channels DVR, and Plex DVR, which aren’t at risk of being crushed by tech giants. They might not have the Alexa or Fire TV home screen integration of Amazon’s Recast, and they’re unlikely to get deep ties into The Roku Channel or Apple’s TV app, but they to get refinements and new features on a regular basis as their niche businesses grow. And that, in turn, should be a relief for cord-cutters as well.

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