Mr. Ronen said he has been brainstorming about Boxee with a childhood friend, Tom Sella, since 2004. They were inspired by XBMC, another open-source software originally configured for the Xbox.
“We bounced around ideas on what the future of TV should look like,” Mr. Avner wrote on Boxee’s company blog a few months ago. “What a truly connected experience means? How people will share? How would they interact? How would they discover content? What is the role of the Web? What kinds of apps people will run on their TV? We drank beer. We smoked. We dug deep. We called it Boxee.”
They released their first version of Boxee this spring. By 2009, Mr. Ronen wants to attract one million Boxee users.
“With Boxee, you can lose your cable box completely,” Mr. Ronen said in his office. “The experience of your television is limiting.”
Sure, Mr. Ronen explained, there’s TiVo and DVR, which allow us to watch shows on our own time (and skip the commercials, too!). But they also require you to think ahead. If a friend recommends Fox’s quirky sci-fi show Fringe, and it’s not on your cable provider’s OnDemand library, you have to jump in the middle of the season and start taping. Boxee allows you to find all the episodes online, starting with the pilot.
Back in his Flatiron office, Mr. Wilson said Boxee is going to be a “hit among the geeks.” But it needs to attract normal tube-watching folks, too. Boxee can change their TV-viewing experience forever. But do they want it to?
Mr. Wilson explained it this way: “The test is, will my mother use it?”
MANY OF US, like Mr. Wilson’s mom, still watch TV in living room 1.0. Take, for example, my grandfather. He is pushing 90, a cancer survivor, a World War II veteran, and can’t hear a smidgen. You need earplugs to step into his living room (or the “parlor,” as he calls it), because he always has the TV on full blast. He lives in Buffalo, N.Y., in the kind of suburban neighborhood you see on Nick at Night. Instead of 2.5 kids, he and his wife, Gertrude, had four. During the 1960s, they’d all gather around the television and watch one of four channels together; they usually settled for the Sunday night Disney special on NBC. Television united his family—and so many others, up through the ’90s—in the living room.
And then came the home computer. Now we watch TV with our laptops open, emailing or reading blogs or looking up some entertainment factoid while taking in the latest episode of Gossip Girl. Or, we’re ditching the TV entirely (for some, it’s gone the way of the landline!) and watching our favorite shows right on our computers. Hulu and YouTube have been upgrading their quality and expanding their libraries. It’s not all dogs on skateboards anymore. It’s cinema classics like Lawrence of Arabia, online, for free.
According to a recent report from research firms the Conference Board and TNS Global, viewers who watch TV online have almost doubled since 2006. One-fifth of families fire up the laptop instead of the big screen.
So is the Internet making the living room obsolete?
Not exactly. It’s just helping it evolve.
“You’ll have several people watching TV in the same room but there are many laptops open. Is that because the TV isn’t compelling, or is it just insufficient?” asked Bijan Sabet, general partner of Boxee’s investor firm Spark Capital, during a phone interview last week.
In the mid-’90s, Mr. Sabet first brought the Web into the living room. He worked in business development at WebTV Networks, which introduced the first convergence digital consumer device that combined the Internet, interactive TV, digital TV, DVR and games. In August 1997, WebTV Networks was acquired by Microsoft Corporation for over $425 million.
Mr. Sabet said Boxee has a similar opportunity. Mr. Avner and his team have the software know-how. A television company, like Sony or Philips, might have the hardware to make it work. If they partner, Boxee could be in your home in no time (and beat Apple while they’re at it).
Mr. Sabet illustrated how behind the times the competition is with this anecdote about TiVo’s most recent technological feat: allowing you to order pizza from Dominos.
“Companies have been working so hard on this interactivity, and, this is it?” Mr. Sabet said. “With all this all this capability? Like, who cares?
“Instead I love the idea that while Avner is watching a show, with one click, nothing crazy, he can send a Twitter update saying he loves the show he’s watching right now,” Mr. Sabet explained. “All these social gestures that are happening on social applications online are going to make it to your TV experience.”
So Boxee can save the living room by drawing teens from their bedroom laptop-viewing and Mom from catching up on Letterman with her iPhone. And my grandfather might not be a lost cause, either. Mr. Ronen, Boxee’s founder, thinks his software has a chance with the old folks, too.
“When my parents visit from Israel and they see pictures of the kids on the TV screen,” Mr. Ronen said, “now that’s something they can relate to.”
So relax, have a seat, he says. It’s just living room 2.0.