Over the past few years, media streaming app Plex has evolved into a cord cutter's best friend, letting users stream their collection of videos, photos, and music from their home PC and the cloud to their smartphone, tablet, and big screen TV. I use the app every single evening, and have been reporting on its progress for at least the past six years.
But while the app, which is available on just about every platform under the sun including Android, iOS, Roku, and Chromecast, has found a niche among power users like myself—there's an entire subreddit dedicated to it—I wanted to better understand what the company had in mind for the future: Is it content to remain a plaything for power users, or does it have designs on turning your Mom and Dad into regular users?
To that end I recently spoke with Keith Valory, Plex's CEO, and Scott Olechowski, co-founder and chief product officer, to figure out what's next for the company and its highly regarded app.
"The reason why we're so jazzed [about the future] is that we've built this platform that allows people to stream content to all of their different devices," Valory told me over the phone, noting that Plex's monthly active users spend an average of four hours per day using the app—a seemingly impossible-sounding number that lines up with Americans' overall TV habits . (Valory declined to say exactly how many active users Plex has, but he did say it's had "many millions" of downloads.) "Now we have lots of companies coming to us asking how we can get more content onto that platform," he added.
The idea of Plex becoming an established content distribution platform—that is, a place where users can reliably go and find legal, high-quality content without having to jump through jumps—immediately piqued my interest because it would help solve one of Plex's biggest issues, particularly for less sophisticated users: how and where to acquire high-quality content.
While Plex is quick to point to legal sources like over-the-air DVR'd TV shows and movies, it takes just a few seconds on Google and YouTube to find detailed guides on turning Plex into a pirate's best friend. Naturally, the company disavows piracy, but to pretend it doesn't exist on the platform is naive, especially when mainstream publications like The Verge describe piracy as the "Apple TV's killer app" and mention Plex specifically in the same breath.
"Our goal long-term is to add more and more awesome and legitimate content into the system over time," Valory said. "The fact that Plex can be used for things that it shouldn't be used for is a fact," he admitted, but stressed that it won't be an issue for the company in the future.
How and where Plex plans to get this high-quality content is still being discussed behind-the-scenes, but don't expect the company to create its own content or dole out the kind of cash that companies like Netflix and Hulu rain down regularly on production companies.
"Over time, we expect to do deals with various content providers in order to enable them to use Plex as a distribution platform," said Olechowski, adding that Plex sees itself as a possible destination for "folks [who] want to get their content out to users around the world on any streaming device." In a sense, Plex may be aiming for a variant of the old YouTube model: It's not going to be funding the next House of Cards or Transparent anytime soon, but will instead be another point on the radio dial—well, internet dial—where companies can screen their pre-existing video content.
Toward the end of our conversation, I asked the Plex executives what they made of all of the excitement surrounding cord cutting, and where they saw the phenomenon heading in the future. After all, before last summer's implosion, it wasn't hard to find big content companies denying that cord cutting was much of a problem at all. Heck, ESPN still seems to have its head in the sand when it comes to the issue.
"There's competition to make the experience better," said Olechowski, pointing to the rapid proliferation of streaming devices like Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast, and Amazon Fire. "In that process there's folks like Netflix, Hulu, and Sling—and us—who are trying to make that experience better because it gives people more flexibility, options, and control."
He added: "[Streaming replacing cable] is not going to happen overnight. It's a pretty big boulder to push uphill. What's going to happen is it's going to get chiseled away at, and then we'll move up wheelbarrows of little rocks."