January 30, 2009
Boxee Unboxed

Boxee, the much-hyped "social media center," opened its alpha download to Linux and Mac users on January 8. A private version of boxee alpha became available last fall and today it has been downloaded by over 100,000 users. Boxee is an open source application that allows users to play media and share recommendations with friends through the boxee interface or through automatic Twitter updates. Boxee plays media from local and network sources, but its real innovation is a slick interface that allows users to stream video from a popular sites including Hulu, Joost, CBS, ABC, CNN, MTV, YouTube, and even Netflix.

Boxee has been in development since early 2007 and it recently secured $4 million in funding to expand. Boxee is based on XBMC, the open source Xbox product that allows users to turn game consoles into home media centers. Boxee CEO Avenr Ronen saw a need to bring digital media to TV screens and thought XBMC was the perfect platform. Ronen explained in a July interview with CNET blogger Don Reisinger: "We believe it's the best damn media center you can get your hands on today." I've been playing around with boxee for the past week and I have to agree with Ronen.

With all the media available on the internet, discovering new content can be a challenge. Boxee is positioned as a tool to help people discover new content through social networks. To that end, boxee users can see what their friends are listening to or watching. Boxee then directs users to online sources of friends' music or videos. The boxee interface supplies metadata rather actual copies of media, so there are ostensibly no copyright infringement issues. Because it's open source, however, user-developed plugins can turn boxee into a BitTorrent client. Still, it could be argued that boxee combats piracy as its ever-growing number of streaming sites directs users to legal copies of media.

Ronen and the team behind boxee have adopted an enlightened, C3-friendly view of sharing media. As a product, boxee supports the right of copyright holders to monetize content, but the boxee team is adamantly against DRM. DRM content will not play on boxee and though boxee will play virtually every digital format in use today, there are no plans for the interface to support DRM.

Originally boxee was conceived as solely a media player. Ronen explained that boxee would focus on building an intuitive user interface and let hardware manufacturers catch up to support boxee's technology. After the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month, however, the boxee team was approached by a number of hardware manufacturers to produce a dedicated boxee set-top box. In the spirit of open source, Ronen opened up a poll on the boxee blog to see what kind of features users would want in a boxee box. Most users said that they were happy with boxee the way and wouldn't want any additional features like TV tuner support. As a set-top box, boxee's intuitive interface and aggregated online content would be a huge improvement over the limited offerings of current cable and satellite video on-demand services. Boxee is proving itself to be the next big thing in interoperable media. Boxee users have a lot to be happy about, but cable and VOD providers seem to have missed the boat on licensing this great new technology.