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"Roku TVs" Coming This Year: Roku's Web Video Software on Your TV, No Box Required

Apple TV-competitor Roku has partnered with Chinese TV manufacturers to bring the first Roku-branded TV set to market this year.

Roku, maker of popular set-top boxes that connect to TVs and stream Web video, is moving onto a much bigger box: The TV itself.

The Silicon Valley-based private company says it will start licensing its platform directly to TV makers, and has partnered with Chinese manufacturers Hisense and TCL to bring the first Roku-branded TVs to market this year.

The move comes as no surprise. Back in May 2013, when the company raised $60 million in funding from Fidelity, Hearst Corporation and others, my colleague Peter Kafka wrote about the company’s plans to have its software installed as a “de facto operating system for a new wave of smart TVs.”

And that’s exactly what Roku is doing. “Roku TV” might give a kind of false impression (hence the quote marks), but what this really is, is Roku’s platform — which currently includes over 1200 “channels” of Web video content — running on TVs made by other companies.

Roku won’t make money off of TV unit sales, but benefits by licensing its software and running the service and software updates. Every time someone watches an ad-support TV show, for example, on the Roku platform, Roku makes out.

The TVs from Hisense and TCL are expected to ship in the U.S. and Canada this upcoming fall, ranging in size from 32 inches to 55 inches. Pricing info hasn’t been released yet — it will ultimately be determined by the TV makers — but keep in mind, Hisense and TCL generally aren’t making the multi-thousand-dollar premium TVs that your friends would swoon over when they watch the Super Bowl at your place. TCL, the third-largest global TV maker, actually sells a 4K TV for under a thousand bucks.

There are several elephants in the room. Google has been trying to figure out TV for a while, and its new Chromecast dongle seems popular.

Then there’s Apple, whose Apple TV box competes with Roku’s, and may one day do something with TV sets itself. Last spring, Tim Cook volunteered that the company had sold more than 13 million Apple TV boxes, while Roku said last month that it has sold around eight million devices.

We still don’t know whether Apple will ever release its own TV set, but by operating directly on TVs and not through set-top boxes, Roku will have a (little bit of a) jump-start on the Cupertino company in this area.

When I asked Roku CEO Anthony Wood his thoughts on the potential for an Apple TV set to come crashing into the market, he acknowledged that Apple would be a “big competitor,” but strongly believes that it would only increase market awareness, and that Roku’s solution would keep them in the game.

“Our solution would still be licensing the platform to all of the other TV makers,” Wood said, “the same way the iPhone made other vendors look for an easy solution, and they turned to Android.”

We’ll be looking for the Roku TVs on display at CES, and will be giving you our first impressions from the show floor, so stay posted for an update.

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