Tuesday, June 30, 2009

boxee Gets Even Better...

I spent Tuesday evening at the boxee dev challenge (sic) in San Francisco, catching up with quite a few old friends and colleagues in the interactive TV space. I’ve been a boxee user since last November; some of the alpha loads have shown huge progress, while a few have flat-out sucked. But, generally, boxee continues to do many, many things right on their path towards, uh, whatever business model they’re chasing.

Personally, I made the move to boxee as part of a networked content revamp, where I got rid of a perfectly good original Xbox classic running XBMC (Xbox Media Center, coincidentally the core code underlying boxee), replacing it with various devices on various displays—boxee on my Mac Mini; a Verismo Pod for Internet TV and USB-based content playout; an Intel-based HTPC running a Windows 7 beta Media Center (which also supports Netflix Watch Instantly very nicely, although not Hulu from the get-go); and a Netgear Digital Entertainer Elite, primarily for networked content play-out from my Promise DLNA NAS. No, I don’t have that many sets of eyes, but I feel that it’s vital to understand what the options are in terms of set-top and home network video connectivity; without testing each of these platforms, I’d be shorting myself—and I certainly realize there are other platforms I’m not working into the mix, too.

(BTW, if you’re not currently running boxee, and if you have a little time and patience to experiment, head over to boxee.tv to download the client. Early on, you had to wait to clear the alpha list; now, it’s open season. Plus, hardware addressability just became MUCH broader with last week’s introduction of a Windows-based boxee client, joining its Mac, Linux, and Apple TV brethren.)

While I’m not ready to anoint boxee as the future of the living room TV-over-Internet experience, it’s a big step on the road to nirvana—or at least to a suitable experience with a user interface my parents could hope to understand. Avner Ronen and his very small team have evolved the original XBMC architecture (which was an absolute bear to install, particularly the hacks required to get up and running on the reasonably closed Xbox classic) into a free platform capable of supporting applications of interest to a broad slice of folks worldwide.

You’ll note that I said “platform”. Most media center architectures’ openness ranges from make-no-apologies closed (insert favorite intelligence agency acronym here) to open-ish, but not so much. What’s refreshing about boxee is that by “platform-izing” the media center, developers can write to a defined API, enabling greatly simplified publishing of applications designed to extend boxee’s usefulness. You may recall the pissing match between boxee and Hulu earlier this year; I’m not about to take sides on who’s right in that debate, but what I’ll posit (and that I think Avner would concur) is that the publicity generated by the boxee-Hulu tête-à-tête was a net positive for both sides—which could very well be behind Hulu's blocking the PS3 this past weekend.

Likewise, the dev challenge generated a ton of positive publicity for boxee; in the month between the announcement of the dev challenge and the close of voting, more than 40 apps were submitted. And, with more than 900 people registered, and (my guesstimate of) over 500 people in attendance, the boxee team was able to get the word out about a wide range of new applications. Some apps have both a broad audience and were of interest to me, such as Facebook integration. Some apps speak to a broad audience of which I’m not a member—no matter how many cute pictures of kitty-cats you might show me, I’m not going to fire up the app; plus, I’d probably start sneezing. Still other apps have a somewhat more targeted audience, but are of HUGE interest to me—in particular, the MLB.TV Premium application.

MLB.TV Premium has enjoyed an interesting second year of life, getting off to a rocky start in its shift from Silverlight- to Flash-based. But, overall, I’ve been very pleased with the offering, particularly the ability to watch multiple games at once, even though the streams peg my CPU utilization. I’d like to see MLB.TV Premium better integrate some of the extremely cool interactive capabilities present in the MLB Gameday application (which could end up as a huge UI/human factors challenge), but I commend the team at MLB Interactive (and Adobe) for their work in delivering a reasonably high-quality experience over my admittedly lousy AT&T DSL line. Applications like this are the future of over-the-top HD content delivery.

Except for one thing. MLB’s media offerings have always, ALWAYS required me to log into the service every single time I’ve fired up a new browser session. I was a subscriber to MLB Gameday Audio since its inception; from day one until last week, I had to log in to watch or listen to a ballgame. While I realize that the process of forcing a customer to log in also affords the opportunity to initiate heavy lifting in the background (e.g., stream buffering), it’s also a pain in the ass. Persistent cookies have been around since the Keebler Elves started baking, so I’ve never been able to understand MLB Advanced Media’s unwillingness to support anything but session cookies. While this behavior is annoying in a two-foot UI, it's unacceptable in a ten-foot UI, where the use of a QWERTY keyboard can not be assumed.

And then, along came boxee. In addition to looking really good from a ten foot UI standpoint (screen shot #1), the MLB.TV Premium app on boxee does the heretofore unthinkable—after logging in, the app stores a persistent cookie (notice the Login/Logout buttons in screen shots #2 and #3, which were taken in different boxee sessions).

Yippee!

Now, you might not think that’s a big deal. But, from a user interface/human factors standpoint, it’s HUGE. More than a dozen years ago, the WebTV team took the industry’s first serious swing at combining the Internet and television. WebTV didn’t invent the idea of data consumption in a ten-foot experience (on TV), rather than a two-foot experience (on the PC). But, we did a pretty darned good job of putting forth a UI for navigation and interactivity that was both powerful and simple to use. And, while WebTV wasn’t a huge commercial success, its progeny lives on as the basis of IPTV offerings from AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, and many other carriers worldwide. Likewise, TiVo hasn’t been a massive commercial success when measured by raw subscriber numbers, but it’s fair to say that any brand that becomes a generic verb (“I won’t be home to watch the race, so I’ll TiVo it”) has done pretty gosh-darned well even if they’re not printing dough.

Time will tell if boxee becomes the next generic brand in the living room, but they’re off to a good start. With its simple, well laid-out user interface, boxee could serve as the aggregator for forthcoming generations of over-the-top TV content. No, cable and satellite providers aren’t going away any time soon. And, despite some pundits’ claims that customers are rushing to cut the cord and move to Internet-only content delivery, the numbers don’t support it. Yet.

One of the big knocks against do-it-yourself home media center solutions has been consumers’ inability to access live content, particularly sports. If boxee is able to convince other sports leagues to open up their APIs to allow subscribers to access premium content via the boxee portal (which is truly what boxee is, even if that term went out of style back when Lycos was still a valuable brand), boxee could be sitting in the catbird seat, as the old redhead himself might’ve said.

(BTW, if you missed the event, and have a couple extra hours (uh, right), you can also find the stream here, courtesy of Justin.TV.)