Vizio Smart TV Shift: Are Google and Amazon in an App War?

This month, Vizio, the North American vendor of value-priced television lines sold heavily in warehouse clubs and discount store chains, amended its exclusive use of smart TVs based on the Chromecast platform as it expanded its selection of app partners beyond the Google ecosystem.

The move not only lets Vizio customers access a more traditional TV-based user interface, but more importantly, it allows the support of the Amazon Videos app that is not supported through the Chromecast (now called Googlecast) system. Not surprisingly, this frustrated Vizio TV purchasers looking to access videos using their Amazon Prime subscription accounts on their TV screens. Over the months, the omission drew numerous complaints on Amazon’s e-commerce portal.

More pressure came from Amazon itself when it began weeding out some TV vendor brands from its online shopping service toward the end of last year. Amazon began limiting its direct sales of Vizio TVs and outside Amazon, retail partners have been doing most of the selling. It seems likely that we may now see more new Vizio TV models being offered directly from Amazon.

Last year, Vizio took the unusual step of introducing in most of its better performing TV models a full range of connected TVs without any on-board apps, instead building in Chromecast streaming that accessed a “SmartCast” app on a second-screen smartphone or tablet. The SmartCast app was essentially the Chromecast app with additional features to control settings on the TV.

Technically, there was a way of getting Amazon on the Chromecast sets, but the process was far from seamless or intuitively easy to figure out. Most purchasers didn’t bother and either returned the sets, made do without Amazon Video or purchased an add-on streaming media adapter, like a Fire TV stick or Roku set-top box.

It turned out that many Vizio purchasers also missed a traditional smart TV user interface. So, Vizio took steps this month to correct the problem by introducing new 2017 M and P Series 4K Ultra HDTV models equipped with “Vizio SmartCast TV,” which is an amended platform the company said was “designed to quickly access popular apps right from the big screen with just a tap of the remote.”

According to the company’s statement on the move, the new “intuitive home screen greets you with content recommendations along with top apps such as Amazon Video, Crackle, Hulu, iHeartRadio, Netflix, Pluto TV, Vudu and XUMO.” The operative app being Amazon Video.

Vizio said SmartCast TV will also begin to arrive in E series models later this summer, and will bring it to 2016 models at an unspecified time in the future. Set owners will be able to also use the previous Chromecast features, even if it is now only supplementary to the on-screen user interface, the company said.

Vizio’s 2017 P and M TVs are packed with advanced features, including 4K resolution, Dolby Vision and full-array LED backlighting with local dimming LCD technology. But, it appears, at least some TV buyers have put a higher premium on getting all of the most popular streaming apps, and Amazon Video is certainly among them.

Although neither company will comment on the situation, both Amazon and Google appear to be engaged in a growing rivalry as they advance their OTT streaming businesses. For example, China-based TV maker Tongfang Global recently delivered to the U.S. market a series of the first smart TVs with built-in streaming connectivity empowered by Amazon’s Fire TV operating system. Interestingly, those sets, which are sold in the United States under the Element (an OEM partner) and Westinghouse (licensed by Tongfang) tradenames, lack Google’s streaming services like Google Play Movies, but they prominently feature its rival Amazon Video services and features.

Similarly, other brands that have used the Google Chromecast and Android TV interfaces like one-time Vizio partner LeEco, also omitted the Amazon Video app. The lone exception in the U.S. appears to be Sony, which makes use of the Android TV platform with Chromecast functionality and also includes the Amazon Video app.

Still, Vizio’s move to end its exclusive use of Chromecast on its smart TVs illustrates that consumers are increasingly placing greater value on the apps than even some of the latest and greatest picture quality enhancements. To stay competitive manufacturers are going to have to find a way to play Switzerland in the streaming provider maelstrom as the biggest OTT services fight for dominance.