Roku CEO Anthony Wood explains why people don’t want to talk to their TVs and why he no longer reads business books
Roku has built a dominant position as the co-leading streaming video distribution platform in U.S. households, in a near dead-heat with Amazon. The two companies own more than 70% market share, according to research firm Parks Associates.
But can Roku maintain its lead over Apple and Google if Americans’ future is a house controlled by a voice-enabled smart-home device that can turn on and off a television and change the channel?
That’s not what people want, claims Roku CEO and founder Anthony Wood. He spoke with CNBC’s Alex Sherman in an exclusive interview.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Wood’s thoughts on Roku’s culture can be found here.)
Sherman: Let’s talk about interactivity. Is it just a matter of time before Roku lets me watch sports and bet from my TV at the same time and do other sorts of cool stuff people have never seen before?
Wood: It’s a complicated question. A couple points. One, it’s not as bad as it used to be, but even today, many companies just don’t really understand the attitude people have when watching TV. They want to sit there, drink their beer, and watch TV. You’ve seen over the years, there was this whole phase where there were interactive TV companies. They all failed, because people don’t want to do that. My philosophy is to keep things very simple. So any time interactive ideas have come up, we would not do that.
That said, there are some exceptions. For example, advertising — we offer interactivity to our ad partners. If you see an ad you’re interested in, like a car ad, you can browse, or do something simple like press a button and send me a text with an offer. So, we experiment with that type of interactivity because it doesn’t get in the way of the viewing experience. If you want to get a free coupon because you’re interested in a commercial, press a button, you can do that.
One of our main goals as a platform is to help you find content that you want to watch. Things like universal search — where you can search across services for an actor or a movie — and get information about if something is free on one service or you have to pay for it on another, that type of interactivity is something that people love, if it’s around discovering content. So, we’re looking for other ways to help people discover content that’s interactive in its nature.
In terms of sports betting — maybe. We’ll see.
Is the future of the TV ecosystem one where every device in the home is connected, and I just call out to my TV and it turns on, and I don’t need a remote anymore?
We are incredibly focused on being the best TV experience. That’s why we’re successful. There are a lot capabilities that I think are silly. People generally do not want to talk to their TV to turn it on, for example. Because as soon as you turn it on, you need to pick up your remote control anyway.
Well, you do today, maybe, but theoretically, you don’t have to, right? Why can’t I control everything by voice? Isn’t that easier?
I don’t think people want to talk to their TV. In cases where it’s faster and easier — search, for example — we make voice remotes. We focus on integrating voice into areas where it can really make a difference, like entering your password or your e-mail address or searching — those are things where it’s tedious to tap stuff out on your remote. But other areas, like just scrolling up and down or the power button, it’s actually easier to use the remote.
But I always lose my remote.
Well, that’s why we let you use your phone as a remote. We also have a cool feature called remote finder, where we help you find your remote for you. We’re big believers in remotes. You look at Chromecast, they made a huge bet that people wouldn’t use their remotes. That wasn’t the case.
One topic that investors are curious about is international expansion. Do you have a broad road map for international? I know you’re in Canada, Mexico and Brazil a little bit. But there’s a whole world out there. What’s the plan? Lay it out for us.
We have a strategy. We have tactics and road maps which we don’t disclose. But our strategy is pretty straightforward. If you look at the evolution of our business model, first we focus on scale, and once you have enough scale, then you start focusing on monetization. That’s the same strategy we’re talking on international. With most countries, we are still at the building scale stage as opposed to the monetization. There are some exceptions. With Canada, as you mentioned, that’s the first country we entered. Now we sell ads there and we have The Roku Channel there. So we’re doing monetization there.
The other part of our strategy is using the same techniques that have worked for us in the U.S. and applying them internationally. So, focus on growing our smart TV market share — we’re No. 1 in smart TV market share in the U.S. We’re No. 1 in Canada. We’re No. 2 in Mexico. Samsung is No. 1 there, but we’re catching up fast. So focusing on smart TVs and selling low-cost players is how we gain scale. For example, when we launch a player now, we launch it in many countries at the same time as opposed to just the U.S.
If you look at all the countries that we’ve entered, our market share is growing and we’re doing well. Android has been the default choice internationally for a long time because it was the only option. So they’re our biggest competitor. But as we add new countries and start focusing on them, we have an awesome solution. The same reason we’ve won in the U.S. is the same reason we expect to win internationally.
I’ll get into this in the main feature more in depth, but after you started Roku, you worked for Reed Hastings at Netflix for about nine months. Have you modeled your leadership at Roku after him? And if not, has there been anyone you’ve tried to emulate?
My relationship with Netflix is obviously very important to Roku, but I only worked there for nine months. It was nine months. It was a great experience. I’ve got lots of people I respect, but I haven’t tried to copy anyone in particular. I used to read a lot of business books when I was younger, but now I’ve stopped.
Is there a reason you stopped? Did you feel like you just didn’t get any use out of them anymore?
I think you go through different phases in your career. When you first start out, just like when you first start out in college, you just have no clue. So, reading books and talking to people is a good way to learn the basics. As you advance, I think, you become much more experienced, and you find that a lot of the books are not helpful. Like, “Oh yeah, if I didn’t know anything, that’s what I’d do,” but that’s not actually the right way to do it.
One of the best things I’ve done to help me build my skills since Roku has grown is to have an adviser — kind of like a coach. He used to be the CEO of a public company. So when I have issues, I talk to him. That’s David Krall. He was the CEO of Avid. He works one day a week for us being an adviser. Talking to an experienced CEO is helpful.
Describe yourself as a leader.
What I try to do is hire good people — people I want to work with, so there’s a good chemistry and team — and devise a strategy and some high-level goals. I might come up with the strategy or work with the team to develop the strategy, but there will be a strategy. I think I’m pretty strategic. And then, focus on execution, giving people the freedom and whatever they need to do their job. That’s what I spend my time on — hiring and strategy.
You’re 56 years old, is that right?
Maybe. That sounds right.
Do you expect to be running Roku as an independently traded company ten years from now?
I have no idea. I’m happy running Roku right now. I have no idea what I’m going to do 10 years from now.
Do you know who your successor at Roku will be?
All public companies have to have a succession plan, so we have one. I focus a lot on developing talent on my team. But often there’s talent outside the company as well. So, I don’t know. I have no plans to leave, but if we were to hire a new CEO, I’d imagine we’d look internally and externally.
Tesla issues recall on Semi over defective brake module, rollaway risk
Tesla has issued a voluntary recall on the Semi, a first since the company began deliveries of the heavy-duty electric trucks to customers in December 2022.
According to recall filings posted on the website of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 35 Semi trucks were affected. The trucks were built with an electronic parking brake valve module found to contain a defect by supplier Bendix in February 2023.
The defect left drivers vulnerable to “rollaway” incidents and increased the likelihood of a crash. According to a recall notice, the defective modules may “fail to move into the park position when the parking brake is activated” leaving drivers unaware their Semi could roll away. The parking brake component defect has not resulted in a crash or any damages, according to the filings.
While Tesla showed off the design of the Semi in late 2017, it only began producing the trucks in Nevada last year and began deliveries to early customer Pepsi at a marketing event late last year.
In filings on the NHTSA site, Tesla said it will “replace the parking brake valve module with a revised part with improved internals that prevent air leakage and allow the driver to engage and disengage parking brakes.”
Elon Musk‘s electric vehicle maker is expected to issue its first-quarter 2023 vehicle production and deliveries report this weekend. Tesla has not previously broken out Semi production and delivery numbers in its quarterly updates.
Signal President Meredith Whittaker learned what not to do from working at Google
Meredith Whittaker, a former Google Manager who is now president at Signal.(Florian Hetz for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Florian Hetzt | The Washington Post | Getty Images
Meredith Whittaker took a top role at the Signal Foundation last year, moving into the nonprofit world after a career in academia, government work and the tech industry.
She’s now president of an organization that operates one of the world’s most popular encrypted messaging apps, with tens of millions of people using it to keep their chats private and out of the purview of big tech companies.
Whittaker has real-world reasons to be skeptical of for-profit companies and their use of data — she previously spent 13 years at Google.
After more than a decade at the search giant, she learned from a friend in 2017 that Google’s cloud computing unit was working on a controversial contract with the Department of Defense known as Project Maven. She and other workers saw it as hypocritical for Google to work on artificial intelligence technology that could potentially be used for drone warfare. They started discussing taking collective action against the company.
“People were meeting each week, talking about organizing,” Whittaker said in an interview with CNBC, with Women’s History Month as a backdrop. “There was already sort of a consciousness in the company that hadn’t existed before.”
With tensions high, Google workers then learned that the company reportedly paid former executive Andy Rubin a $90 million exit package despite credible sexual misconduct claims against the Android founder.
Whittaker helped organize a massive walkout against the company, bringing along thousands of Google workers to demand greater transparency and an end to forced arbitration for employees. The walkout represented a historic moment in the tech industry, which until then, had few high-profile instances of employee activism.
“Give me a break,” Whittaker said of the Rubin revelations and ensuing walkout. “Everyone knew; the whisper network was not whispering anymore.”
Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Whittaker left Google in 2019 to return full time to the AI Now Institute at New York University, an organization she co-founded in 2017 that says its mission is to “help ensure that AI systems are accountable to the communities and contexts in which they’re applied.”
Whittaker never intended on pursuing a career in tech. She studied rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley. She said she was broke and needed a gig when she joined Google in 2006, after submitting a resume on Monster.com. She eventually landed a temp job in customer support.
“I remember the moment when someone kind of explained to me that a server was a different kind of computer,” Whittaker said. “We weren’t living in a world at that point where every kid learned to code — that knowledge wasn’t saturated.”
‘Why do we get free juice?’
Beyond learning about technology, Whittaker had to adjust to the culture of the industry. At companies like Google at the time, that meant lavish perks and a lot of pampering.
“Part of it was trying to figure out, why do we get free juice?” Whittaker said. “It was so foreign to me because I didn’t grow up rich.”
Whittaker said she would “osmotically learn” more about the tech sector and Google’s role in it by observing and asking questions. When she was told about Google’s mission to index the world’s information, she remembers it sounding relatively simple even though it involved numerous complexities, touching on political, economic and societal concerns.
“Why is Google so gung-ho over net neutrality?” Whittaker said, referring to the company’s battle to ensure that internet service providers offer equal access to content distribution.
Several European telecommunications providers are now urging regulators to require tech companies to pay them “fair share” fees, while the tech industry says such costs represent an “internet tax” that unfairly burdens them.
“The technological sort of nuance and the political and economic stuff, I think I learned at the same time,” Whittaker said. “Now I understand the difference between what we’re saying publicly and how that might work internally.”
At Signal, Whittaker gets to focus on the mission without worrying about sales. Signal has become popular among journalists, researchers and activists for its ability to scramble messages so that third parties are unable to intercept the communications.
As a nonprofit, Whittaker said that Signal is “existentially important” for society and that there’s no underlying financial motivation for the app to deviate from its stated position of protecting private communication.
“We go out of our way in sometimes spending a lot more money and a lot more time to ensure that we have as little data as possible,” Whittaker said. “We know nothing about who’s talking to whom, we don’t know who you are, we don’t know your profile photo or who is in the groups that you talk to.”
Tesla and Twitter CEO Elon Musk has praised Signal as a direct messaging tool, and tweeted in November that “the goal of Twitter DMs is to superset Signal.”
Musk and Whittaker share some concerns about companies profiting off AI technologies. Musk was an early backer of ChatGPT creator OpenAI, which was founded as a nonprofit. But he said in a recent tweet that it’s become a “maximum-profit company effectively controlled by Microsoft.” In January, Microsoft announced a multibillion-dollar investment in OpenAI, which calls itself a “capped-profit” company.
Beyond just the confusing structure of OpenAI, Whittaker is out on the ChatGPT hype. Google recently jumped into the generative AI market, debuting its chatbot dubbed Bard.
Whittaker said she finds little value in the technology and struggles to see any game-changing uses. Eventually the excitement will decline, though “maybe not as precipitously as like Web3 or something,” she said.
“It has no understanding of anything,” Whittaker said of ChatGPT and similar tools. “It predicts what is likely to be the next word in a sentence.”
OpenAI did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
She fears that companies could use generative AI software to “justify the degradation of people’s jobs,” resulting in writers, editors and content makers losing their careers. And she definitely wants people to know that Signal has absolutely no plans to incorporate ChatGPT into its service.
“On the record, loudly as possible, no!” Whittaker said.
WATCH: AI hype is real
China’s chip industry will be ‘reborn’ under U.S. sanctions, Huawei says, confirming breakthrough
The U.S. has placed major chip export restrictions on Huawei and Chinese firms over the past few years. This has cut off companies’ access to critical semiconductors.
Jaap Arriens | Nurphoto | Getty Images
China’s chip industry will be “reborn” as a result of U.S. sanctions, a top boss at Huawei said Friday, as the Chinese telecommunications giant confirmed a breakthrough in semiconductor design technology.
Eric Xu, rotating chairman at Huawei, issued fighting words against Washington’s tech export restrictions on China.
“I believe China’s semiconductor industry will not sit idly by, but take efforts around … self-strengthening and self reliance,” according to an official translation of Xu’s comments during a press conference.
“For Huawei, we will render our support to all such self-saving, self-strengthening and self reliance efforts of the Chinese semiconductor industry.”
Semiconductors have been a flash point in the broader U.S.-China battle for tech supremacy. Over the past few years, Washington has attempted to cut China and Chinese firms off through sanctions and export restrictions.
In 2019, Huawei was put on a U.S. black list called the Entity List, which barred American firms from selling technology to the Chinese company. This included chips for 5G products — where 5G refers to super-fast next-generation mobile networks. Chip restrictions against Huawei were tightened in 2020 and effectively separated it from the latest cutting-edge chips it required for its smartphones.
Washington then introduced broader chip restrictions last year, aiming to deprive Chinese firms of critical semiconductors that could serve artificial intelligence and more advanced applications.
The U.S. is concerned that China could use advanced semiconductors for military purposes.
Huawei’s Xu said these developments could boost, rather than hamper China’s domestic semiconductor industry.
“I believe China’s semiconductor industry will get reborn under such sanctions and realize a very strong and self-reliant industry,” Xu said.
Experts previously told CNBC that the latest round of U.S. restrictions are likely to hurt China’s semiconductor industry. Under the current rules, certain tools or chips that are made using American technology are not allowed to be exported to China.
The nature of the chip supply chain makes this very effective. U.S. tools are used across the chip production process, even if a semiconductor is manufactured in another country.
China’s domestic chip industry relies heavily on foreign technology, and it lacks companies that can match firms in the U.S., Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.
China has made self-reliance a big priority amid the tech battle with the U.S., but experts agree this will prove an extremely difficult feat.
Chinese firms are now trying to develop tools required for semiconductors domestically.
Last week, Chinese media reported that Xu in a speech said that Huawei and other domestic firms jointly created electronic chip design tools needed to make semiconductors sized at 14 nanometers and above. Xu said those tools will be verified this year, which would allow them to be put into use.
The rotating chairman confirmed that he made this speech, but added those tools will “mean very little” for the Huawei business. It only means that Chinese firms have the design tools required domestically, he said.
The 14 nanometer figure refers to the size of each individual transistor on a chip. The smaller the transistor, the more of them can be packed onto a single semiconductor. Typically, a reduction in nanometer size can yield more powerful and efficient chips.
But Huawei ideally needs chips of a much smaller nanometer size for more advanced applications, which they are currently finding it difficult to obtain. The company is still reeling from the effects of U.S. sanctions — on Friday, it said net profit dropped 69% year-on-year in 2022, marking the biggest decline on record.
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