Please make your products work with URLs

2020-01-13

I want to tell you about something I was unable to accomplish, after more than 30 minutes of concerted effort.

I have video file hosted using a web server. The file is H.264 main-profile encoded at a reasonable bitrate (<5Mbps), uses AAC audio, and is packaged in an MP4 container. The web server supports HTTP range requests. In other words, the video is basically in the least common denominator format for compatibility. It streams great in all major web browers, VLC, and everything in between.

In my living room, I have a Roku "smart" TV. It has tons of apps, full internet connectivity, and is more than capable of both connecting to and playing the video file described above. But I failed to get this to happen, after much googling and trying multiple apps (both on the Roku TV and my Android phone).

The way this type of thing is usually accomplished in 2020 is to open the video on your phone, then tap a "cast" icon and tell it to send the video to your TV. What happens behind the scenes is the phone uses some protocol (Chromecast being the most common I'm aware of) to send the URL to the TV, and the TV then plays it directly, while still letting you play/pause, seek, change volume, etc from the phone. When this works, it's like magic. The YouTube app works particularly well. However, there doesn't seem to be any widely implemented standard for playing plain URLs, only walled gardens like the YouTube app.

This whole thing was made much more frustrating by the fact that I knew the TV had all the requisite capabilities to do what I was attempting. The YouTube app is proof of that. There just wasn't any obvious way to find the correct app combination.

Here's the way this should work.

The Roku app for Android allows you to use your phone as a keyboard for the TV, rather than the awful physical remote UX for input. This is a great feature which I appreciate.

I should be able to copy a URL from my phone (possibly obtained from scanning a QR code), paste it into the Roku Android app, and the Roku should attempt to play the file at the URL. This is clunky, awkward, and not particularly easy. But it is simple, obvious, and intuitive.

Here is my plea: when you build hardware/software, please make it support the primitive, simple case. By all means, implement the slick Chromecast-style flows. It's great when it works. But there needs to be a fallback for when it doesn't work, or when the user wants to try something slightly different. HTTP is the lingua franca of the internet. When you build stuff, please make it work with simple URLs.

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