On Wednesday, Amazon launched its Fire TV Stick in India, priced at Rs. 3,999 (there's a Rs. 499 cashback for Prime members), which means that for the first time since the launch of Amazon Prime Video in India four months ago in December, there's an easy way to get your content on to the television screen. Of course, that's not all the Fire TV Stick does - you can install apps for Netflix, Hotstar, Gaana, Eros Now, DittoTV, and others, though, at 8GB, storage space is a little limited on the Fire TV Stick.
Although you could import a Fire TV or Fire TV Stick to India before this, there were limitations. For one, there were almost no Indian apps available, so if you wanted to watch the IPL on Hotstar, for example, then you were out of luck.
And of course, Amazon's own Prime Video wasn't supported. What's more, the service wasn't available on other devices that support it internationally, such as game consoles. Yes, you could AirPlay it onto an Apple TV if you have an iOS device, but not many people in India live wholly inside Apple's ecosystem. With the official launch of the Fire TV Stick in India, that's changed, and you can now queue up an episode of The Man in the High Castle without having to use your phone to force it to launch, but most of the new Indian apps leave a lot to be desired.
Poor design not optimised for televisions
The Fire TV stick is great if you're a Prime Video subscriber who also uses Netflix and YouTube. These are easily our favourite services on the platform, because of how aesthetically pleasing and simple to use they are.
On the other hand, out of the various Indian applications that we tried after the announcement on Wednesday, only Gaana's music stream app seems like one that doesn't need a complete overhaul. The app's fairly basic, but the search works fine, the different UI elements are at least clearly readable, and the UI is easy to navigate with the Fire TV remote. Meanwhile one of the worst experiences was while using Hotstar.
On one hand, given Hotstar's catalogue and relatively reasonable pricing, we're happy to see it as a Fire TV app. On the other hand, the UI is practically an incitement to violence. Scrolling through is not smooth, the focus seems to get 'stuck' at times when you're nearing the edges of the screen, requiring one or sometimes even two extra keypresses to continue to scroll, and there are times when it's is even more inconsistent.
Sometimes, for example, you're trying to scroll down the list of categories on the home screen, and the focus will jump up to the categories bar on the top of the screen, so you're now on the Sports tab. Tapping the left or right keys at this point is fine, but tap down again, and you're back to scrolling through the list you were on.
Sometimes, pressing the back button will take you to the categories bar. At other times, it will ask you if you want to exit Hotstar. Accurately scrubbing is next to impossible, and there are no subtitles available.
A clear lack of testing
We tried out a number of other apps - having used an imported Fire TV for a couple of years we've got a fair amount of exposure to how apps can and should look on the device.
What we found was that just about every other app had some issues. For example, although Hotstar was definitely the worst experience, DittoTV also suffered from poor navigation, and felt more like something that was designed for mobile displays - and touchscreens.
Eros Now was the best looking app, but there were a couple of major shortcomings that keep us from wholeheartedly praising it. For one, there's no search function in the application, which is pretty much unforgivable. Secondly, the content is a little too small to read easily on the screen. It looks like you should either be watching it on a big, 70-inch display, or you should be sitting just two feet away from the television.
This led to - for example - looking at the Rangeela poster thinking, "this doesn't look like I remember", and on loading you realise it's actually the poster for Rangeeley. In that case, it wasn't just the title text under the poster that was too small to be seen - that's the case with every entry on Eros Now - but also the text on the poster itself. Finally, a minor quibble - in the settings the first option is select languages. The only choice in there is 'All languages', which makes us wonder why the option was added at all.
Things will get better
The good thing about all of this is that apps can and likely will be updated, and get better. And unlike the Apple TV, which is expensive and - according to completely unofficial estimates - doesn't have a wide install base in India, Amazon's offering is relatively cheap. Add in the fact that it's the 'official' - and for many, the only - way to watch Amazon Prime Video on your TV, and Prime Video itself is a service that's pretty reasonably priced, you can see a number of people being interested in the Fire TV Stick.
And if there are users, then the developers will also be motivated to improve their offerings and provide better solutions. What's surprising though is why Amazon, which has been in this business for some time now, didn't work more closely with the developers to ensure that the first experience people have with its hardware doesn't have these kinds of issues.