Fred Wilson watches television in a modern living room, but it probably isn’t quite like yours. Call it living room 2.0. As managing partner of Union Square Ventures—which invests in budding tech start-ups like Twitter, Tumblr and 10gen—he often brings the latest gadgets and social networking whats-its into his West Village home. He says his big “‘aha’ moment” came last year, when he plugged his Mac Mini, Apple’s tiny desktop computer drive that’s about half the size of a toaster, into his 60-inch television display. Suddenly the Internet, the whole World Wide Web, was in his living room.
“Slowly but surely, our family started using the Mac Mini instead of the cable set-top box and the DVD player,” he wrote on his company’s blog last week. His son watches YouTube videos with his friends; his wife catches up on Saturday Night Live skits via Hulu; his whole family listens to music on iTunes and online services like last.fm. When they’re not watching videos, the TV displays a slideshow of digitized family photos, stored on a server in the basement.
“Many think that streaming video is not ready for ‘prime time’ on a big screen in a family room,” he continued in his blog post, “but I can tell you definitively that is not true.”
Mr. Wilson’s hi-tech living room might sound fairly state of the art, but it’s actually already in need of an upgrade. The Mac Mini’s user interface is clunky and the software doesn’t integrate the family’s favorite streaming services. Sometimes one of his three kids have to pull out a keyboard and open a browser window to search for what they want. In other words, sometimes it seems like they’ve traded the remote control for a rat’s nest of wires and hardware in their living room. Of course there are more elegant devices like Apple TV and Microsoft’s Xbox-powered Media Center that also bring the Internet to the TV set, but they’ll cost you. Want to watch The Daily Show With Jon Stewart on Apple TV? You’ll fork over $1.99 and be required to use an Apple platform, like iTunes, instead of another (free!) service like Hulu.
So, in the battle to bring the Web into the living room, Mr. Wilson saw an opportunity for an underdog. And that’s where Boxee comes in.
Boxee, which is not actually a physical box, is a software program that you can download for free onto your computer. It searches all of your connected devices, from your hard drive to your iPod, scoops up photos, music and videos, and then organizes them into an elegant interface that you can view on your television. Want to look at snaps from your last vacation? Put ’em on the widescreen. Or watch CNN, streaming from the channel’s Web site. It’s all there.
Boxee can also offer reviews, cast listings, trailers and summaries—no need for an extra laptop open to IMDB to figure out why that new Heroes character looks so familiar! It also allows users to recommend movies or other media to fellow Boxee-ians or send out Twitter posts about what they’ve been watching. Want to throw a karaoke party in your living room by streaming your mp3s and queuing lyrics that Boxee finds for you on the Internet? Go for it! Need to play home movies on the TV in lieu of post-Thanksgiving dinner conversation? Boxee can handle that, too.
And Boxee is not only social, it’s open source. Independent developers can build applications, just like on Firefox, Facebook or the iPhone, to tailor the software to user needs. Profits will come from partnerships with networks and services like Netflix. Boxee can make your TV whatever you want it to be—and it’s free!
THIS SPRING, Mr. Wilson, 47, downloaded a very early version of Boxee onto his Mac Mini. “My kids saw and it and they said, ‘Wow, this is really great,’” Mr. Wilson explained in his 14th-floor office at Broadway and 21st Street on a recent workday afternoon. “That’s when I got the first sense that Boxee was onto something.” At his desk, Mr. Wilson fired up this personal page at boxee.tv and showed me what’s been going on at his house. He watched Finding Forrester on Hulu that past weekend. He also listened to Belle & Sebastian that morning. I could see inside his living room 2.0.
On Nov. 18, Mr. Wilson announced on Union Square Ventures’ blog that the company was investing in Boxee, together with Boston-based funding firm Spark Capital, to the tune of $4 million.
Boxee is currently in “alpha,” which means it’s in the testing stage and there’s still lots of work to do. Right now, it lacks an easy search function to find specific shows or artists. You can’t use it with a remote control (unless you buy one that comes with an Apple TV or Mac Mini). The interface has some navigability issues. But Boxee’s creator, Avner Ronen, knows all this.
Mr. Ronen, 33, lives in New Jersey with his wife, Maskit, and three children. He first moved to New York about a decade ago from Israel, where he was an engineer who developed the first internal Web network for the Israel Defense Force. He brought his start-up company, Odigo, an instant messaging service, with him to the city. In 2002, the company was sold for $20 million to Comverse Technology, but was later shut down in 2004.
I visited Mr. Ronen at his Soho office on a Thursday afternoon, and interrupted him from a phone call with a Boxee client; just one of the 100,000 “alpha” users who are continually sending complaints, demands and praise to him through email, Twitter and even videoconferencing services like Skype. His office walls are sparse. So is his desk, except for an unsolved Rubick’s cube; he shuffled it away when I arrived.
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.
Follow Gillian Reagan via RSS.