updated 01:10 pm EDT, Mon June 30, 2008
Front Row meets Twitter
For the past six years, a group of developers scattered across the globe has been quietly working to reinvent the way we watch movies and listen to music. The result is Boxee -- a media player based on the XBMC Open Source platform -- released in alpha form this month initially on the Mac. The developers says Boxee was born of frustration over what they saw as the somewhat clunky way computers gather and display content. Separate applications are needed to display photos or play music and movies, and content is often delivered in formats requiring proprietary media players. The ambitious end game for Boxee is to become the "one-size-fits-all" media center that works with any kind of content on any platform.
Boxee developers say another problem with most media players is they primarily exist to sell content -- not to enhance the music and movies users already own. Recommending songs and movies to friends can also be a complicated process, with dozens of alternatives from social networking sites to instant messaging and blogs. The idea behind Boxee, according to CEO Avner Ronen, is to provide users with a "truly connected experience," by improving what they already own, finding new content and allowing them to share recommendations with friends. "Access to content is more sexy and intuitive", Ronen said in an interview with MacNN.
As an example, consider the way iTunes displays imported CDs. It gathers song titles, a bit of information and cover art. Boxee takes it a few steps further -- providing artist photos, background material, lyrics and (soon) hyperlinks to content providers. Movies are showcased with a synopsis, trailers and other content fetched from the web.
Boxee is also a social networking application. An icon-based interface tells users' friends what they've been watching, and vice versa. Recommendations can be posted and shared in an icon-based interface. In addition to photos, movies and music, Boxee also displays Internet-based content from YouTube, CNN and other sources.
The Boxee interface is similar to Apple's Front Row, but with social networking added in. Boxee is, in a sense, an "Entertainment OS." Ronen says Windows and Linux versions are planned, and there is no reason why the software might one day run on set-top boxes or game consoles. Since Boxee is Open Source, plug-ins could be created to support things like chat within the application, HD tuners, DVRs and more.
There are, however, some big obstacles to overcome. A key selling point is Boxee's ability to play virtually all of a user's content, no matter what format. But it won't play DRM-protected songs and movies from iTunes and other providers -- at least not yet. Ronen says Boxee will be distributed as a free application, with the idea that the social networking features will drive content providers to sign on as advertisers. Impulse buyers will find it easy to purchase content recommended by friends, he said.
It's important to note that Boxee does not support peer-to-peer file sharing. Instead of sharing songs and video, users trade recommendations. Like iTunes, Ronen says, Boxee is designed to encourage the legal purchase of songs and movies. The company hopes to make it's money from content providers and perhaps through licensing fees from set-top box and game console makers.
The Boxee alpha requires an Intel-based Mac with OS X Leopard and supports the Apple Remote. A fresh round of Alpha invitations will be issued on Monday for those who sign up at the company's website. A beta release is likely this fall with a final version expected in early 2009.