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The Race Too Early to Call: Roku, Apple TV, Fire TV, Chromecast

The more data that emerges regarding the streaming video player category, the less clear it is just who is on top.

The latest sprinkling of data points carefully designed to make a company look robust without actually revealing too much came from Roku Tuesday, which disclosed reaching the 10-million-unit sales mark in the U.S. since launching in 2008.

That nice round number probably brought to mind Apple CEO Tim Cook , who in April revealed that rival product Apple TV had reached a global installed base of 20 million, which had generated $1 billion in revenues for the company last year.

But Apple TV and Roku don’t have the streaming device marketplace to themselves anymore, according to data issued earlier this month from NPD Group’s retail tracking service ( based on a survey of 5,000 U.S. consumers). The emergence of Google’s Chromecast on NPD’s radar for the first time in the second quarter of the year reduced U.S. market share for the category leaders.

Apple TV saw its share drop from 46% in the second quarter last year to 39% in 2014. Roku had a slightly smaller dip, from 33% to 28%. Both of their drops were on account of Chromecast grabbing 16% share. Keep in mind last year IHS pegged Roku and Apple TV’s combined market share at 94%.

Yet it’s too early to draw any conclusions because this is quickly becoming a four-player race where all three incumbents could see share drop further next quarter, when sales of Amazon’s Fire TV are tracked for the first time.

Not to be outdone, Roku also shared an NPD Group stat Tuesday that makes a more direct comparison: The purple box served an aggregate 37 million hours of video streamed per week compared to Apple TV at 15 million hours, Chromecast at 12 million hours and Amazon Fire TV at six million hours. Can’t get a clearer sense of what the competitive set is than that, right?

But time is a tricky metric. Consider a damning Parks Associates estimate made in June that found a declining percentage in the number of Chromecast users using the device at least once a month. Google responded the following month at its I/O conference with a different data point suggesting the total number of minutes Chromecast is being used shot up 40% from last year.

Both points could be true: While the overall number of Chromecast buyers are using it less, the core user base is more engaged than ever.

Parks also issued a worrisome indicator for Chromecast in June that Q1 sales of Chromecast had remained flat from the two previous quarters, with just 6% of U.S. broadband households buying Chromecast. That figure held steady even as the usage of streaming media players overall is on the rise.

Moreover, Parks estimated in July that Google sold 3.8 million Chromecast units over the previous 12 months worldwide, on par with how many units Roku sold in all of 2013. Apple TV sold just over 2 million last year. Chromecast is available in 19 countries as of July, significantly more than Roku, which is just in four countries, while Apple TV is in far more than both competitors combined.

Chromecast was also likely the culprit for the pronounced decrease in the average price of a streaming media player, which went from $88 in 2012 to $61 in the first half of 2014, according to NPD. A big factor in Chromecast’s ability to move the volume of units it did was its cheap $35 price tag, which in turn prompted newer, cheaper devices in the market like Roku’s $49 HDMI stick.

Another research firm, IHS, estimates 24 million units as the installed base for streaming media players in the U.S. this year, comprising nearly half of the 50 million total worldwide. That’s up from 16 million the previous year and expected to climb to 44 million by 2017. Streaming media devices are distinct from Blu-Ray players, game consoles and connected TVs, which altogether are expected to reach 213 million by 2017. All of the other segments are still more pervasive than streaming devices.

As of the first quarter of 2014, according to Parks, 20% of U.S. broadband households use streaming media players, up from 14% in 2012. When consoles, connected TVs and Blu-Ray players are added in, that’ number is near 70%.

Of course, with all the attention now on this sector, the question in the years to come is what use devices that attach to TVs to allow for streaming when an increasing number of smart TVs come with that capability baked in? Until then, there’s a short-term horse race worth watching.

 

 

 

 

 

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