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Roku vs. Google: Who’s really to blame in this battle that only stands to hurt customers?

This week, a feud between Google and Roku boiled over to the point where the YouTube TV app was removed from the Roku platform. This story is still developing, but as it stands today, we’ve heard stories from both sides, so let’s try to summarize everything that’s happened so far.

Here’s what Roku says

On Monday, April 26, Roku sent out an email blast to many of its customers who are YouTube TV subscribers. The email notified customers that negotiations between Google and the streaming platform had broken down, and as a result, YouTube TV may leave the Roku platform entirely.

In that email and further messaging to the press, Roku made strong claims about what Google was doing.

Roku said:

  • Google is imposing “unfair and anticompetitive” requirements.
  • Google is asking Roku to manipulate search results including a dedicated row for YouTube results and blocking results from competing streaming platforms while using voice search while the YouTube app is open (including music results).
  • Google is “threatening” Roku to use specific hardware and storage chips that would increase the cost of Roku hardware.
  • “Roku is not asking Google for a single additional dollar in value.”
  • “We simply cannot agree to terms that would manipulate consumer search results, inflate the cost of our products and violate established industry data practices.”

Roku claims that the company isn’t asking Google for additional money but refuses to accept terms that would modify search results or “inflate” the cost of hardware. Roku also claims that Google is using its power as a “monopoly” to force these terms. The company also directly told its customers in an email that they should “contact Google” and “urge” the company to follow industry practices.

On Friday, April 30, Roku further added that the company has “only asked Google for four simple commitments,” those being to not manipulate search results, not require access to data that other partners don’t have access to, not force hardware requirements that would increase costs, not “act in a discriminatory and anticompetitive manner against Roku.”

Roku also emphasized that the YouTube TV app will remain available to those with it already installed “unless Google takes actions that require the full removal of the channel.”

Here’s what Google says

In response to Roku on Monday, April 26, a YouTube TV spokesperson said that Google made no requests to access user data or “interfere with search results.”

After the YouTube TV app was removed from Roku devices on Friday, April 30, Google offered more context.

Google said:

  • Existing YouTube TV customers on Roku will “still have access” and encourages them not to remove the channel.
  • Initial conversations between Google and Roku were “simply to renew” the previous terms that have been in place “for several years.” Google says that Roku chose to use that as “an opportunity to renegotiate a separate deal encompassing the YouTube main app,” which wouldn’t have expired until December 2021.
  • Roku requested exceptions to YouTube’s technical requirements, which “would break the YouTube experience and limit our ability to update YouTube in order to fix issues or add new features.”
  • Roku’s claim of Google requesting access to user data and manipulating search results is “baseless and false.”

In an email to customers, Google reiterated that current YouTube TV users on Roku won’t be affected unless they remove the channel. The company also encouraged its users to reach out to Roku’s customer support or tweet at Roku to request they “keep YouTube TV.”

Looking at the context

Just looking at what Roku and Google are both saying doesn’t tell the entire story, though. We also have to look at the context surrounding both companies, how they’ve behaved in the past, and what they stand to gain.

In 2020 alone, Roku delayed the launches of both HBO Max and Peacock on its platform due to negotiations. While Roku wasn’t fully responsible for the delay, they certainly played a major role in both. In fact, the tactics Roku played with NBCUniversal over Peacock were virtually identical to the ones being used against YouTube TV.

Further, just ahead of the Super Bowl last year, Roku delayed negotiations with Fox until the absolute last second — legitimately within the last 24 hours before the game. If they had failed, it would have prevented all Roku owners from watching one of the biggest yearly events in the United States.

That’s just a piece of the puzzle, and it’s one Google was quick to remind everyone of, saying that Roku “often engages” in that sort of tactic during negotiations.

What about Google? The only place we really have to look is Amazon versus Google. For years, YouTube had no official presence on Amazon’s Fire TV. That was part of a standoff that also saw Amazon blocking the sales of Android TV devices and Chromecast, as well as blocking its Prime Video from both platforms. That feud finally ended in 2019, with both companies giving each other access to their respective platforms. It was never confirmed, though, who was at fault in that situation, but it was likely mutual given the sheer size of the two companies.

Taking a further step back and looking at the bigger picture, let’s imagine what would happen if this feud escalated to the point where Roku lost YouTube TV and YouTube as a whole. On Roku’s side of things, that’s a huge loss of two of the biggest products in streaming. On Google’s side, it would definitely have an impact, but I’d be surprised if it amounted to anything beyond a speed bump. YouTube and YouTube TV would survive without Roku, but I’m not sure Roku would fare well without YouTube products. Circumstances like those would make a company fairly defensive and aggressive in negotiations.

How does AV1 play a role?

If you’ve been following the Roku YouTube TV story, you’ve probably heard the term “AV1” thrown around. AV1 is a new video codec designed to cut down on bandwidth requirements while boosting quality for the end user. It’s also a royalty-free standard that supports content in 8K. Compared to the HEVC codec, AV1 shows as much as 30% more efficient compression.

AV1 is in use today in quite a few places, even despite the lack of hardware. YouTube requires AV1 for 8K content. Netflix is streaming some titles in AV1, as is YouTube competitor Vimeo. Facebook has committed to rolling out AV1 in time, and Twitch is targeting 2022 or 2023 to start support of the codec. Android 10 and beyond support AV1, as does Chrome 70 and later. Linux and Windows 10 also support AV1, but Apple’s iOS and macOS both lack support currently.

AV1 will be a win for everyone in the long run, but at the moment, it requires specialized chips that support AV1 decoding. Those chips, unfortunately, are more expensive than what’s found in the vast majority of streaming devices today.

Why does AV1 matter in this case? AV1 is a standard that Google is heavily pushing. The standard is also backed by Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, Microsoft, and other major players, but Roku has been mostly silent about the standard outside of including support for it in a high-end Roku Ultra.

While Google’s own Chromecast released last year doesn’t support it, the company has required that all Android TV devices released this year and going forward to support AV1. It’s also rumored that YouTube will require AV1 support at some point in the future; it’s already been testing the functionality since 2018. For those reasons and others, it’s completely believable that Google would be pushing its partners, such as Roku, to adopt the standard going forward.

Who should you blame?

At the end of the day, one party is probably more responsible for this squabble than the other, but both play a role. What really matters is who’s impacted, and that’s you, the customer.

When big corporations like Google and Roku fight over distribution and content, the only party that really loses is the customer. They either lose access to something they’ve paid for or have to pay more for, or just end up frustrated by uncertainty.

For everyone’s sake, let’s hope Google and Roku come to an agreement sooner rather than later and just leave this all in the past.

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Ben is a writer and video producer for 9to5Google.

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