In many houses the TV and broadband line can be found only inches apart and in most cases no connection is yet made. The Internet had the power to bring about a revolution in the choice of programming available, instead of scheduled streams of programming that we have no control over we will be able to pick and chose what we want to watch from thousands of producers. Media centre software such as MythTV is a great option for this, with the capability to deliver a full TV friendly experience, but up to now media centre software has primarily focused on TV tuners and media available locally, such as your collection of videos and MP3s. Now a new entrant onto the media centre scene is offering a different focus, putting web services at the heart of the TV experience, but this goes beyond just consuming web content, they are also adding a social, Web 2.0 dimension by integrating with popular sites such as Twitter, Last.fm and FriendFeed. Boxee is not just software, but also a social networking site where you can form communities and rate content. It makes TV a social activity.
So why would you want to share your viewing habits with a community? In some ways this idea isn't as new as it sounds. People have talked about what they watched on TV probably since the first broadcast. Last.fm already does something similar for music, although with the addition of a recommendation engine. It is becoming harder though to have a shared, social experience of watching TV though. Cable and satellite have brought hundreds of channels to the living room, the days of a handful of channels gaining millions of viewers are fading into history (it seems strange now to think back to a time of only three tv channels!). This is great news for choice, but it does make it difficult to recommend content, and when you throw in the increasing influence of a multimedia web it is only going to get worse. Social networking could bring back a sense of shared fun to television, if you are in a community of people with similar interests and they recommend content to you (an you to them) you can vastly improve your chances of watching something you enjoy.
Boxee is currently available as an alpha release for the Ubuntu (32 bit) and Mac operating systems. It is based on the XBMC media centre software that was originally designed for the XBox games console. I installed it onto my EEE PC to experiment with it, as alas my main laptop is 64 bit and no suitable version is yet available. It runs well though even on the EEE PC and features an attractive as well as easy to use user interface, which is also very modern looking. The software will find all the local media on your machine and find reviews from the Internet for it. There are sections for video, music and pictures. Each one of these also has a sub menu for Internet services bring such services as YouTube, Flickr and the BBC iPlayer to your screen. No need to huddle over a laptop, this is software you could run on a small media centre PC (many something like a mini-itx machine?) and hook into your widescreen TV. The software is expandable through plugins written in the versatile Python language as well so any number of services can be added by third party developers. If you watch something it gets posted back to an activity stream on the boxee.tv site. More details can be found at: http://www.boxee.tv (and thanks to Tony Hirst for spotting Boxee). The only slight issue I had with running Boxee on Easy Peasy (an Ubuntu derivative) was that it did not start full screen, double clicking on the title bar sorted this out.
Bringing the Internet into the living room is an exciting prospect. For too long many people could only experience the web from the computer in the spare room, or at work, or on the small screen of the laptop, but development such as Boxee bring a prospect of entertainment and education being delivered straight to the TV ever closer. The technology and pricing is now right to bring computers into the living room, but Boxee does demonstrate one very important factor, that openness is very important. Delivering locked-down proprietary solutions into the living room is just a recipe for falling behind, open source removes restrictions to innovation, which is very useful in an emerging experience of the Internet where customer expectations and demands are not yet set. Hopefully Boxee won't be the only innovation in this area and we see many more ideas being presented to integrate the television and the web.