Plex has been a featured app on streaming devices for almost as long as Netflix and Hulu. While it was not nearly as well known years ago when it first hit the scene it is now easy to find on seemingly every major platform in the industry including even smart TV operating systems like LG’s Web OS. This has been great for Plex as it has become more and more mainstream. What is easy to miss about Plex though is that it has been evolving.
Plex really isn’t an app anymore. It’s a platform all to itself masquerading as an app.
What do I mean by that?
First lets think of what an app is. An app is essentially a program that does something or in some cases, an app is a stylized website built in a way that allows users to access it on a format besides a computer. Netflix is an app. What does it do? Lets users play content from its huge database. Watch ESPN is an app, HBO Now Is an App. On the other hand the camera on your phone is an app. It lets you take pictures and record video. I don’t doubt that you know this.
A platform, on the other hand, is like an operating system. Windows is a platform. Windows organizes all of the programs on a computer and creates a user interface that allows all of us that don’t speak computer to access the things we need. Roku is a platform. Rokus Platform allows you to access all of the apps that people have made to let us stream things as well as access materials from other hardware etc.
Now lets think about Plex in that context. When Plex first hit the scene it was an app that allowed users to organize and view digital media stored on a computer. That is a nice function that still exists today. Another thing it does is allow users to access other computers with digital media provided that the owner of the other computer allows it. It essentially lets people share stuff.
For years that was Plex’s major function along with allowing users to watch a handful of Internet-based TV content from existing websites like CBS.com and others. In that form Plex was a powerful app built around stored media and internet media. But Plex now does so much more.
The Plex Platform
Let’s look at just some of what Plex now does through its “app”
- Media organization software for pictures, movies and music
- Streaming Channels (Plugins)
- Access to untold numbers of podcasts (Podcasts)
- The ability to play saved content from numerous streaming sources online (Plex it)
- The option to share and view any friends Plex content from anywhere
- DVR Functionality
- Live OTA TV Integration
- A news app that can be personalized to fit your wants and needs
- A remote control app
- Photo auto tagging for Plex pass users
- Music playback with lyrics and artist info
- The ability to load pictures to a Plex server automatically
Now let’s think of what Apple TV did when it first came out. It played movies purchased from iTunes that were housed on a Mac computer on your TV. That was the earliest incarnation of course. Later it grew to offer a select group of apps and the all-important AirPlay and Mirroring function. It currently offers a full app store and an organization tool for finding streaming content.
But imagine if Plex had its own device. The Plex box would have a ton of stuff to offer, wouldn’t it? At the moment there are not even close to the number of media apps as are offered on platforms like Roku, Apple TV, Android TV or Fire TV. But if the developers chose to go in that direction the difference between what Plex can do VS what some of these media devices can do is striking.
Imagine comparing a Plex Box to a Roku
Roku offers thousands of apps across a huge group of subjects. Its app library allows users to get a ton of functionality including apps for photos, major movies, live streaming, Youtube etc. Let’s say Plex offered hundreds including Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, ESPN, the major live streaming services along with say the top 500 streaming apps in the US.
What else does Roku do?
A Roku can allow users to cast pictures, music and video saved on a phone to the device and TV via its Roku controller app.
Users can pick movies and add them to “My Feed”. This allows Roku to monitor the availability of titles across its platform.
It has a built-in video news option based on AOL On
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The latest Roku’s can be programmed with more TV functionality like allowing the Roku remote to turn a TV on and off and control volume.
Overall it’s a simple rather single-function device that does what it is meant to do fantastically. It’s strength as a platform is that it welcomes almost all developers to put their apps on to Roku devices and provides an easy to use app store so that users can take advantage of it.
Compare those built-in features with what Plex does all on its own.
Plex doesn’t want to compete
Plex’s goal is not to be a hardware destination. It wants to be a multifunction app. But as it continues to add more wrinkles and features it more and more resembles a streaming platform than simply an app. An Nvidia Shield user with a built-in Plex server may be able to find themselves happy in the Plex universe for days without even opening up another app. There is a reason Netflix spun off Roku and did not release its own player. Overall this is good news for streaming fans.
One thing I wish Plex would do
Plex does not have a standalone app for computers. It used to have a very easy to use a controller friendly app for computers meant for users who were running HTPC’s. It’s set up was strikingly similar to what Amazon initially rolled out when the Fire TV hit the scenes. Plex abandoned that set up in favor of a web-based function. I badly wish that Plex would reconsider and design an app for PC’s that can stand on its own and be navigated via a standard TV style controller. There are already apps out there for other platforms which do this. Add in a li