Plex in December launched its own ad-supported streaming service in more than 200 countries, where it functions as a competitor to The Roku Channel, Tubi, Crackle and other places that offer free-to-stream content without a subscription. While the company will continue to develop and expand its ad-supported product, it's also looking ahead to what comes next. And that includes adding subscription video, a transactional marketplace for rentals and purchases, and a way to launch streaming content Plex can't host -- like the shows and movies available on mainstream streaming services.
The question for Plex is not whether or not it wants to offer these features to its users, but rather which ones it should focus on first. Some may arrive this year, in fact.
Plex has always desired to become a sort of one-stop shop for all your media. That began with its software for organizing your personal media collections, then grew to include a live TV streaming service for cord-cutters with their own antenna, plus a cloud DVR, access to podcasts, web shows, streaming music from TIDAL and now an ad-supported catalog.
But a lot of what users today want to stream requires a fee. That's where Plex's next set of features will come in.
In some cases, connecting Plex users to premium content can be handled by way of subscription channel add-ons, similar to Amazon's Prime Video Channels, Apple TV Channels or The Roku Channel's subscriptions. For example, a user who wanted to discover and watch content on HBO from inside Plex could purchase a subscription through the Plex platform. (Plex hasn't confirmed subscription partners -- HBO is just an example.)
In other cases -- such as with streamers like Netflix, perhaps -- Plex would have to link out to the show or movie, as the service doesn't allow third-party platforms to distribute its content. This "deep linking" feature, as it's called, would allow you to search for and discover shows and movies from within Plex, then play them wherever they were available.
This could function similar to something like Reelgood, a streaming dashboard where you can browse, search, then watch TV and movies from Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Prime Video and dozens more services.
Then for those movies and shows that aren't available by way of subscription services, a transactional marketplace could fill in the gaps, allowing Plex users to rent or buy the content they want to watch.
CEO Keith Valory says Plex is currently planning to focus first on its existing ad-supported streaming product and subscription video, with deep linking to follow. But the actual launch order could change based on numerous factors, including user feedback.
Ideally, however, deep-linking features won't be developed until Plex feels its core ad-supported library of content is robust. Today, Plex is working with more than 40 content partners for its ad-supported library, but has only ingested around 5,000 of the 40,000 total titles available through its deals.
"We want to have a critical mass of content available before we have the deep linking capabilities," noted Valory, speaking to TechCrunch at CES. "But if those deep-linking opportunities present themselves earlier, we're also optimistic. If we can make a feature relatively easy for users and they love it, that's what we as a company have always done."
Plus, Plex's work to establish relationships with content partners will make the subscription offering easier to push forward.
"Through the process of doing these deals with the AVOD [ad-supported video on demand] partners -- [we found] a lot of those same companies have their own SVOD [subscription video on demand] channels they would like to deliver through us, or have a strong desire to have their content included in some types of either linear or SVOD bundles," added Valory.
Plex says it would like to put together a set of 15 to 20 SVOD channels to choose from when it makes subscriptions available on its platform. Big names like HBO and Showtime could easily be included in this group, as they're fairly agreeable to distribution deals of this nature.
The time frame to launch for some of the planned features could be as soon as this year, in fact.
With a variety of content under one roof, Plex's unique advantage is how it can provide cross-media recommendations -- like suggesting a podcast about a TV show or a web show about a movie's actor, for instance. And if and when deep linking goes live, Plex could potentially be the dashboard for the increasingly fractured streaming industry, which is set to add new players in 2020, including HBO Max, NBCU's Peacock, Quibi and more.