Boxee’s Big Night Out

Last night, I attending Boxee’s NYC meetup. Over 600 people attended, hundreds more than attended the previous meeting, held in San Fran. A statement both to the growing popularity of the product, as well as the enthusiasm of the NY tech crowd.

I’m a big fan of Boxee, and have previously written about why I think it’s a real revolution in terms of both the user interface as well as being a potentially disruptive force in the media industry. More on the latter in a bit.

First, the product. You can read about the details over on the boxee blog, but, in short, last night they added support for Pandora, RadioTime (a service I’ve never heard of before last night…). They upped the ante in the Hulu debacle by creating the “boxee brower” — based on mozilla code, it essentially connects to Hulu (or any Internet site) as a web browser, so if Hulu wants to shut out Boxee, it will shut out everyone using, say, Firefox.

Information wants to be free and all…

Perhaps more significantly, the folks at BoxeeHQ, which seems to be a sort of incubator for boxee plug-ins, added PBS support. So now there is a ton of PBS video available for viewing through boxee. The BoxeeHQ work is one piece of a real push by Boxee to build a development community around its product. Avner Ronen, Boxee’s CEO, last night announced a new, easier to use API set, and encouraged developers to help bring content to boxee’s platform.

In fact, this actually key to Boxee’s business plan. To his credit, and unlike services like Twitter, whose Exec team either seems reluctant to speak in detail about their plans for monetization, or simply don’t know, Ronen was quite candid about the plan for his company. And it’s simple: Encourage enough people to use Boxee so that content providers (television execs, Internet media companies, Internet radio, etc, etc) take note, and then ask for a cut.

Ronen was adamant about never charging users for Boxee. His plan is to become a game-changer, and essentially force the hand of Big and Small Media by delivering an audience. Ronen also said he has no interest in selling user behavior data.

Do I believe him in all this?

I think it’s smart to remain a skeptic. The debate Ronen has been involved in with Mark Cuban, CEO of HDNet, illustrates the fact that Big Media won’t just acquiesce. Cable providers and television networks have their idea of how media works, and that picture doesn’t involve Internet techies cutting them out.

I also have no idea how lucrative Boxee’s proposition really is — it seems like there are two problems. The companies that are more than willing to work with Boxee (blip.tv, nextnewnetworks) are upstarts themselves and don’t really pull in the big bucks; the companies that have the big bucks aren’t interested in Boxee taking a cut.

Faced with that problem, the easy thing for Ronen to do with Boxee is exactly what he said he won’t — charge subscriptions, and sell user data.

So it will be quite a challenge, and time will tell how this plays out.

All that said, Boxee has plenty of things going for it. First and foremost, they have a rabid user base that loves the product, and loves the content this product facilitates. And as I mentioned in the beginning of this post, Boxee really is a huge step forward in user interface, taking all the complexity out of the web experience, and making it “couch-able.”

Couchable media. I like that.

Update: Whitney Hess, a design consultant working with Boxee, has updated her blog with more detail around the upcoming beta version, which will include some much needed usability features, like putting favorites on the home screen. Her post is here.

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