Standing on the stage at Webster Hall in front of a standing-room only crowd on March 24, Avner Ronen, the founder of Boxee, announced some big news: Hulu is back. Mr. Ronen, dressed in his Boxee shirt, beer in hand, released a new “alpha” version of Boxee, the open-source software that is reinventing the living room, in front of a crowd of more than 600 of its users at the software company’s first New York City Meetup.
Boxee is not actually a physical box but a software program that users can download for free. It searches all of your connected devices—from your hard drive to your iPod—and scoops up photos, music and videos, and then organizes them into an elegant interface that you can view on your screen. It also aggregates videos and music from content providers like NextNewNetworks and Blip.tv (both presented at Tuesday night’s Meetup), Comedy Central, CNN and many others, including Hulu.
But when Mr. Ronen first mentioned NBC and News Corp.’s joint video site at the Meetup, an audience member was overheard hissing. “No, no, we love Hulu,” Mr. Ronen said with a wily smile. Although Hulu was never an official partner with Boxee, its content was available on Boxee until Hulu’s content providers requested that executives block access. Boxee created a work-around by integrating Hulu’s RSS feed, but Hulu blocked that, too.
Now, Boxee has a new solution—their own browser. Users can now select Hulu videos on the software’s interface (Lost and Heroes are popular choices) and a browser will launch, automatically detect the video on the page and open it in full screen. Voila! Now, “if it’s on the Web, it’s on Boxee,” Mr. Ronen told The Observer in an earlier interview.
Another addition to the new version of Boxee is the integration of Pandora, the popular Internet radio service that specializes in creating a “one-click personal radio experience,” said Tom Conrad, Pandora’s chief technology officer, from the Webster Hall stage. Users will be able to listen to Pandora’s carefully curated radio channels and create their own “stations” based on artists and albums of their choosing. They can also use the “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” feature to narrow their preferences.
“At home, that’s the only music we listen to,” Mr. Ronen told The Observer. He added that Pandora was the most requested service to be integrated with Boxee after Netflix.
Another new application, called Radiotime, automatically detects users’ IP addresses to find their exact location to provide local radio stations available for listening. Users can listen to stations like WNYC and WNYU right from their television screens with Boxee.
Boxee is also releasing a new version of their API so developers can build applications on top of the system and add whatever content they want. The New Jersey natives behind Boxeehq.com have already created applications for Open Film and Game Trailers, and for the new version of Boxee, they are releasing a PBS channel. Fire up Frontline!
Mr. Ronen called for developers to make Boxee into whatever they want it to be.
Mr. Ronen and Whitney Hess, Boxee’s user experience designer, also presented a preview of what Boxee’s beta version will look like, including a more customizable home screen, a global search for shows instead of sifting through content providers’ channels (right now you can only find 30 Rock if you go to NBC’s page, for example) and improved social networking capabilities. (Mr. Ronen mentioned that one religious Boxee user was accidentally sent the infamous pornographic video “Two Girls, One Cup.” Whoops!)
Mr. Ronen said his team has been hard at work on the new alpha version of Boxee, but they’ll be working on the beta version, which will be much friendlier to mainstream audiences, during the next few months. He guessed it might be released “maybe by the end of the third quarter.”
The Meetup was a relative success for Boxee. Pizza and beer were served to the packed crowd. T-shirts were thrown into the audience stadium-style, and, despite an audio mishap earlier in the evening, spirits seemed high. Integrating Hulu back into the software was something of a triumph for Boxee, which has been in a David vs. Goliath battle with Hulu since mid-February.
But with tonight, “We want to put the Hulu thing behind us,” Mr. Ronen said, sitting in an office by his Park Avenue home base at NextNewNetworks the morning before the Meetup.
“The idea of Boxee is scary for them,” Mr. Ronen said.
In a February 18 blog post, Hulu chief executive Jason Kilar wrote that they would be blocking the site’s content on Boxee at the request of their content providers.
“While we stubbornly believe in this brave new world of media convergence—bumps and all—we are also steadfast in our belief that the best way to achieve our ambitious, never-ending mission of making media easier for users is to work hand in hand with content owners,” he wrote. “For those Boxee users reading this post, we understand and appreciate that you’re likely to tell us that we’re nuts. Please know that we do share the same interests and won’t stop innovating in support of the bigger mission.”
“They love the application, they just don’t like what it’s doing to their business,” Mr. Ronen said. But perhaps, he continued, content providers like Hulu should see this as an opportunity to prepare for an inevitable future. “Don’t try to fight it or delay it or ignore it, rather they should participate and see it as an opportunity to explore new business models.”
“The risk of not doing it now is that users will turn to solutions that don’t respect their copyright,” he said.
But Hulu and the like still have time. Boxee currently has about 370,000 users, Mr. Ronen told The Observer. “We’re still talking about the early adopters here,” he said. “It’s not going to move the needle for anybody.”
As for Mr. Ronen, he wants to look past Hulu and continue to attract the “big enchiladas,” as he put it.
He also told The Observer that he plans on making Boxee available on a hardware device by 2010. Users who own an Apple TV can already create a TV set-up with Boxee. But Mr. Ronen is in talks with device and board-makers working on embedding the software into an easy set-up box that can sit on top of your TV—no hacks necessary (think TiVo). “That will be the big step into breaking into the mainstream,” Mr. Ronen said.
As for the new version of Boxee, Mr. Conrad, of Pandora, told the crowd at the Meetup that he “can’t wait to go home and install it.”
The crowd probably couldn’t, either.
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