What to expect from Amazon’s TV streaming device

Amazon (S AMZN) is set to announce its Roku and Apple (S AAPL) TV competitor at a press event in New York Wednesday. The company has successfully kept a lid on the project, leaving everyone guessing about key details like the actual shape of the physical device — but there have nonetheless been enough hints to give us an idea what Amazon’s new hardware product will do, and how the company might use it to fight for a place in our living rooms.
Amazon sent out a press invite last week, promising to give journalists “an update to our video business.” The invite image featured a couch and a bowl of popcorn, making it all but clear that this was about the TV, and not Amazon’s mobile video apps. All that was really missing was a remote control.

What we know: Android and third-party apps

Here’s what we know so far about the device that Amazon is set to announce:
It’s based on Amazon Common OS, which is the forked version of Android that also powers Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets, and that will be used for future hardware products.
It will feature Amazon’s Prime Instant video service front and center, but also include a number of third-party apps, including apps for Netflix, (S NFLX) Hulu and other big media services. However, there likely won’t be an official YouTube (S GOOG) app at launch.
Amazon may have used a shell company called Ailen LLC to get the necessary FCC approvals for the device. That company’s filings for a media streaming device, as well as a Bluetooth remote control, hit the FCC in March. The filings hint at a Roku-like set-top box with dual-band Wi-Fi and a USB port, using the model number CL1130.
However, there have also been reports that Amazon may sell a streaming dongle that more closely resembles Google’s (S GOOG) Chromecast than Roku’s set-top box.
Amazon has also been developing a wireless gaming controller that could potentially be used in conjunction with the TV streamer, but it’s also possible that Amazon is developing a separate device that primarily targets gamers with a cloud-based gaming service.

Why Amazon wants to sell its own streaming device

The bigger question may not be how the device looks like, but why Amazon would want to do this at all. There are already plenty of devices competing for shelf space and HDMI ports in the living room, and quite a few of them offer access to Amazon’s content. Prime Instant videos can be viewed on connected TVs and Blu-ray players from companies like Vizio, Sony (S SNE) and Samsung, Roku’s streaming players and all major game consoles. So why would consumers need another box?
The answer is simple: With its own hardware, Amazon would be able to promote its services more aggressively. On a Roku, Amazon Prime Instant is one app among roughly 1,200, but on an Amazon device, the service could be front and center every time consumers turn it on. In addition, Amazon might be able to sell services like billing to TV app operators down the road, allowing them to charge consumers for programming through a credit card that Amazon already has on file.
And finally, one could of course also expect closer ties between Amazom’s e-commerce and the content it shows on screen. Amazon has already rolled out tagging within Prime content on its mobile apps, making it possible to read up on actors as they appear on screen. The same may be possible for products shown in a video, or even advertised in a third-party app.
But for now, a TV device would be all about getting people to watch more Prime Instant, the same way that the Kindle Fire is all about getting people to read and watch more Amazon content.
We’ll have live coverage of Amazon’s event tomorrow morning starting at 8am PT in New York.