October 22, 2008

Boxee : The Killer App For AppleTV

Procrastinating earlier today, thumbing through the Twitter stream, I came across a link to Boxee. I clicked through to see what the deal was and was greeted with something I have personally been waiting for since AppleTV made it's debut.

When Steve Jobs announced AppleTV at Macworld 2007 I was initially really excited. Finally a chance to watch the gazillions of podcasts on my 61" Samsung HDTV from the comfort of my couch. I had Front Row already on my Mac, but had never used it because, well, my Mac is in my office and my TV is not. AppleTV promised the 'lean back' viewing experience for all the new media I had become partial to. Mainstream TV holds little interest for me outside of a couple of big shows (Lost, Heroes etc) and sporting events. I watch so much more internet content these days but being relegated to the discomfort of my office is a real turn-off, especially having been in that office for many hours already during the work day.

So AppleTV offered the TV experience for web content. Great. Or was it. Unless the content was in the Apple ecosystem there was little chance of getting any other media on the ATV. Quickly this became a point of contention for many who saw the ATV fall short of it's potential. Seemingly everyone who consumed online media wanted what the ATV offered, and more. There was huge demand. I did not take long for some very smart people to hack their way into the ATV OS and install third party apps to play other media, install bigger hard drives to store all this media, and some nifty SSH tricks for managing the whole lot. Trouble was, for the layman, the technically shy or retarded, this was an extremely geeky process to execute. Nothing I wanted to mess with, and risk bricking an ATV.

Fast forward to Macworld 2008 and AppleTV "Take 2" was announced. High Def movie rentals were now an option, something I could not even get from AT&T uVerse HDTV package. YouTube content had already been added, and now ATV could download, store and view podcasts without needing a Mac running iTunes. All great additions to an already slick product. But still, we were limited to content from the iTunes Store. Admittedly there is plenty of content in there to keep any video podcast junky happy for many years, but increasingly, the content I was tuning in to was out of the iTunes system. Videoblogs I subscribe to account for a huge percentage of my media viewing. Hulu was now online and serving content not available on iTunes. ATV still fell short of a truly Last Word Killer App.

Another option that is quite popular with online media fans is using a macMini running Miro (formerly Democracy). Miro can subscribe to and play any show with an RSS feed,which is almost every podcast, videoblog and web show on the internet. It's a great solution. Other than the fact that, like the ATV hacks, is still a bit geeky for everyday use. Basically the macMini uses your HDTV as a monitor, and thusly, interfacing with it is just like interfacing with a computer. This requires a wireless mouse and keyboard to control the Miro (and other) application. I would not be able to convince my wife and kid that this is the way forward to control our viewing experience, and if it this is just for me it's unlikely to ever happen.

Which brings us, finally, to Boxee. Like Miro, it can subscribe and play any media you might find on the web.1 But it lives inside the AppleTV, activated by a button added to the ATV user interface. This is created after a quick and (relatively) easy hack. A hack I myself would feel comfortable doing. There is a video on the Boxee blog that walks you through setting it up and it looks completely painless. Boxee pulls in content from Hulu, Last.fm, Flickr and much more which expands the AppleTV capability way beyond the iTunes ecosystem. And it is all controllable from the same remote used to control ATV, no other device to stand between you and your media.

The great thing about TV, regular old mainstream media TV, is it just works. You sit down on the couch, click the remote and content pours out of the screen at you. Changing channels is a simple one click process. New media, web media, online shows, whatever we want to call this next generation of audio-visual magic, it needs to be as simple as TV to take off into the mainstream. It's fun to be geeky and hack our gadgets, but most people wont accept that. If new media is to thrive, and get beyond the fringe novelty status2 then it needs to be one-click simple. Like TV.

From what I can tell, Boxee makes this possibility one step closer to reality. I signed up for the closed beta list. hopefully I will get an invite and be able to test it soon. It might just be the thing that will make me break down and finally get an AppleTV.

1. As far as I can tell from digging around the blog this morning. There is not a whole lot of info I could find as far as the exact mechanism for subscribing to content. so I am assuming a fair bit here. But it sounds like you can input an rss:// address to view content. I hope you can subscribe to it negating the need to enter that address each time.

2. Yeah I know, its not fringe, everyone you know is watching Hulu or Myspace or BoinBoingTV. That's the way it feels isn't it. But go ask grandma if she watched a Telly Savalas movie on AMC today or if she saw Dr. Horrible. I'll bet I know what she says.

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