In January 2015, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt attracted a great deal of attention for declaring that the Internet will disappear. Addressing an audience question about the future of the web at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Schmidt explained that soon “there will be so many IP addresses…so many devices, sensors, things that you are wearing, things that you are interacting with that you won’t even sense it.” Schmidt, of course, was talking about the grand vision of our digital age, in which data flows seamlessly between and among people and systems. In the future, so the story goes, the Internet will be integrated so deeply into our lives that we will cease to notice its existence.
This paper investigates what this continuous drive for interconnectivity means for streaming devices, the companies that make them, as well as the users who are tasked with integrating them into their homes. Drawing on research conducted at the intersection of media industry studies, science and technology studies, and platform studies, I propose that we see streaming devices not simply as black boxes that transmit and render useful data and information across hardware and software, but as complex systems in which different layers—technological, data, human, and institutional—intersect and work together in intricate, context-specific ways.
Adapting John Palfrey and Urs Gasser’s framework of interoperability, I analyze how three different media players are engineered to work within specific technological and cultural contexts. In particular, I focus on Microsoft’s Xbox One, the Roku 3 box, as well as the Apple TV to explore three distinct approaches towards interoperability, built on the interconnectivity of technological systems, the support of a wide range of video formats, and the application of a familiar design language, respectively. Ultimately, exploring the different layers that make up these streaming devices allows for a more nuanced understanding of what makes media technologies and humans work together. At the same time, it helps us explain why, in some cases, certain media technologies fail to establish themselves in the social world of their intended users.