Testing Out Boxee

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I’m not usually one for the whole early adopter thing. It’s probably because of the time I spent doing technology research, I’ve kind of become immune to companies selling the Next.Greatest.Thing(tm). Most of the time you find out it’s really vaporware, or, what’s sometimes worse, the stuff just doesn’t at all work (worse because you waste so much time trying to get it work…).

But for the last week or two, I’ve been testing out Boxee, and I think this company, with this product, is really on to something. Boxee is a home entertainment system — it runs on your computer (or on an Apple TV), and, using your remote control, it allows you to plays lots of different video and music content, as well as display photos. (More on its functionality below.) I want to talk about three things in this post: How this app is evolutionary in its design, revolutionary in its interface, and a bit about how it actually works.

Boxee is I think a next, logical step in the evolution of computer technology. To understand why, it’s helpful to think of computers in terms of the concept of abstraction. This is a programming term, that essentially describes how the complexity of things are hidden behind a simple interface layer. Programmers use this technique to makes their lives easier — if you have a service I want to use, I shouldn’t have to rewrite your entire application; it’s much easier if I only have to ask you to do something very specific. That’s the general idea.

In fact, computer technology is really all about layers of abstraction. Without getting too detailed here, the way your computer is displaying this page right now is because of this notion: Your brower talks to your operating system which talks to your hardware which talks to your network with talks to the rest of the Internet which talks to the wordpress.com server and so on. Each layer here does not have to know anything more than the layer it talks to — the browser doesn’t have to know about how routers work on the Internet; it only needs to know how to talk to the operating system and send its request along. (This type of design follows the OSI model, if you want to read more.)

The reason web browsers were so important, is because they “hid” all the complexities of computers talking to other computers over a network. This was an evolutionary step beyond the previous generation of computer technology, which was computer-centric (people passed information between computers manually on disks, using the “sneakernet”), not network-centric. What a company like Facebook is doing, by including lots of different functions inside their system, is basically trying to “up” the abstraction level even further — instead of the Internet and your web browser being your “interface” to others, Facebook wants to be the only place you need to go (that’s why Facebook calls itself a “platform,” and it’s why they’ve added things like chat…).

This idea of abstraction is actually a very good thing, because, over time, it makes computers easier and easier to use. Lots of people use Wikipedia today, but hardly anyone, comparatively, edits Wikipedia, because it’s actually not that easy to do — it needs the complexities of the wiki markup language abstracted into something more like Word, which most people already know how to use. Another example is blogging — before Blogger came along in the late 1990s, hardly anyone blogged, because you needed to be a techie to do it. Once Blogger made it simple, blogging exploded across the net.

So, with that long explanation complete, what Boxee represents is a sort of evolutionary next step, because it makes it easy to access lots of different content, both on your computer and around the Internet. Boxee provides a front-end to your content, whether it’s on your hard drive, or on Flickr, or it’s something you want to watch on Hulu — it’s also a consistent interface, so that watching a movie on Netflix is the same operation as listening to Last.FM or watching the movie you took last Christmas of everyone opening their presents. Boxee abstracts content from a location perspective, and makes the method of using media the same across different data types. So this design is an evolutionary step, hiding the complexity of accessing content into something much more simple, essentially “flattening out” the notion of where media resides.

At the same time, this is also somewhat revolutionary — Boxee is revolutionary in its simplicity. Because the way you control this app is, primarily, with a remote control (you can also use your keyboard/mouse), by design it has to be simple. That means minimal typing, right-left-up-down movements. For example, here is the page with the choices for Internet video:

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As you can see, you click left or right to move to an item, and press “enter” on the remote to select it. You move up and down the menus this way as well.

The only other computer product with an interface this simple, as far as I can recall, is the iPod — the reason the iPod is so successful is because it’s the easiest thing in the world to run (OK, it also looks really cool, too…). Think of the iPod Shuffle — one button.

In fact, the most successful media technology of all time is also the simplest — the TV. On, off, change the channel. That’s it.

So what’s revolutionary here is that we’re finally seeing what really could be the next huge shift in media technology. Any game-changer must be simple — just like the iPod, and just like the TV. Now, the idea of what Boxee can do isn’t at all new. It’s predecessor is, most obviously, WebTV. Purchased by Microsoft in 2001 and renamed “MSN TV,” this application was an early attempt to deliver Internet content to the masses, by enabling it to work over the television, using a wireless keyboard and remote control. While WebTV was more about enabling browsing and email over the television, the real idea was simplicity, and abstraction — getting people who weren’t computer experts to use the net by offering a simple interface.

That same idea is what, I think, Boxee can do. It makes getting to websites really simple and consistent — if you can use a remote control, you can use Boxee. And while it may not be this specific product that eventually becomes the leader in this market, you can be sure the next generation of television isn’t going to be brought to you by cable-providers. It’s going to be a mix of user-produced and professionally-produced content, from anywhere and everywhere, and it’s all going to be made easily accessible over your computer and displayed on your TV. In fact, my guess is the distinction between “computer” and “television” will go away, since it’s really all the same thing. (Or at least will be one day.)

Finally, a bit more on how Boxee actually works.

The first thing to do to use Boxee, although it’s not necessary, is to connect your computer to your television. On my Macbook, it was easy to do. I needed three cables: A mini-DVI-to-HDMI connector coming out of my Mac’s video port; an HDMI cable to plug into the port on my TV, and a mini-headphone-to-RCA jack to go from my Mac’s headphone output to the inputs on my stereo receiver. (I should have done an optical audio output here, as it would improve the sound. But it still sounds OK for now.)

Now, as I said, you don’t need to connect this to your TV, but if you’re going to use Boxee to watch movies or TV shows or video podcasts, it’s much more comfortable on the couch.

The setup was fairly simple — it found content on my computer in the standard places, and it’s easy to tell Boxee where to look for anything that’s not in a standard folder. In the Applications menu, you can put in your Last.FM user ID and PW, so you can “scroble” your songs as you listen.

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One thing I haven’t mentioned is that Boxee is social, so that your friends see what you’re watching and listening, and you see what they are doing, and you can recommend things to others, etc. Social software is, of course, what’s fueling business on the web today, but, really, I think that’s the least interesting aspect of the product…

A couple caveats. This is alpha code. That said, for alpha code, it works very well. The main thing I had to do was turn off the “visualizer” when playing music — that crashed the app every time. Also, they recently added support for Netflix movies — both accessing your queue and playing the instant-play movies. It still needs some work. Finally, it doesn’t do DRM, so anything you’ve purchased from the Apple Store will not show up in Boxee. (One reason I buy my music now from Amazon’s MP3 store.)

Oh, one last thing. Boxee is open source. Nuff said, right?

If you’re at all curious about Boxee from this post, by all means you should get yourself an invite and take it for a test run. It’s a great example of where media technology is going in the future.

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