Yesterday the Wall Street Journal sent everyone into a tizzy over its claims that Amazon would launch an ad-supported (but otherwise free) streaming video service. This was supposed to be a step away from (or perhaps parallel to) Amazon Prime, for which the company currently charges $99 a year and allows members to view certain movies and TV shows for free without ads.
Also yesterday, media outlets received invites to an Amazon-helmed event in New York City next Wednesday, April 2 (note: not April 1, or Fools’ Day) wherein the company solicits recipients (TIME tech editor Doug Aamoth will be attending) to “join us for an update on our video business,” those words printed on the image of an orange IKEA-style sofa next to a bowl of popcorn. It’s clear the company plans to unveil something related to its living room video content delivery strategy.
But when asked to confirm or deny the Journal‘s claim, Amazon did something companies often don’t: It answered the question unambiguously. Here’s the press statement from Amazon spokesperson Sally Fouts:
The Journal had said the service “could launch in the coming months,” so you could argue it didn’t get the story wrong so much as mistime it. As Amazon itself notes, it’s “often experimenting with new things,” and it may just be playing a rhetorical game with the word “plans.” Technically speaking, you can develop something right up to the eleventh hour (any military strategist will confirm this) and still deny you had “plans” until the ultimate arbiter, say a Jeff Bezos, commits to specifics and a timeframe for those specifics.
Meanwhile, we’re back to square one: Amazon’s holding a press event next week to talk about video stuff, and couch stuff (and popcorn stuff). What in the world does it mean?
Perhaps the fabled set-top streaming video box the company’s supposedly been working on for some time. Rumors the company would roll out such a box resurfaced in February and pegged March for unveiling. The box was reportedly in the works much of last year and due to ship around Christmas, but The Verge claimed last October that Amazon was punting, and Re/code’s Peter Kafka (then writing for AllThingsD before it became Re/code) said the box would launch “most likely in the spring.”
Why launch a set-top streaming video box without something fresh on the service side? For starters, we don’t know there isn’t something new; we just know it won’t be a free ad-supported streaming service. But let’s say next week’s thing is just a box that does what you already can with your Roku or Apple TV: If Amazon wants into the hardware space, every day, week and month spent standing on the sidelines hands set-top sales to Apple, Roku, Google and the lot.
According to Kafka, Apple’s sold 13 million units of its Apple TV, Roku’s sold 8 million units and Google’s sold “millions” of its Chromecast USB dongles (plus Roku just unveiled an updated USB-stick version of its service earlier this month). That’s to say nothing of all the people using game consoles primarily (or exclusively) as streaming video interfaces. I have many friends who’ve abandoned gaming because they have no time to play, who do precisely the latter (and, their appetites whetted, whose next streaming box will probably be a simpler, cheaper, hockey-puck-sized set-top).
One thing I don’t see happening next week: Amazon rolling out a box that’s a mainstream gaming contender. An Amazon branded set-top might play games in the sense my Roku 3 plays Angry Birds, but I don’t think Amazon’s going to throw its hat in the ring with the likes of Microsoft, Nintendo or Sony unless or until it has killer content. In mainstream gaming, no one cares how fancy or powerful-in-theory your hardware is. Gamers flock to great content, and were Amazon prepping a box and content on that scale, chances are we’d have heard something by now.
That doesn’t preclude the possibility that Amazon would offer streaming games on a budget-priced set-top, which is one of these instant end-arounds to address the content problem, but it involves significant visual and other latency-related compromises. In my view, it’ll never be a device for mainstream gamers. But then Amazon’s probably not after that segment. If, instead, it can sell a service like that as an hors d’oeuvre (on a plate with lots of hors d’oeuvres) to the sort of more casual media consumer looking for a reasonably cheap, all-in-one streaming box, then game streaming make sense: Game-streaming pioneer OnLive’s subscriber base was small, but it wasn’t zero.