The news that Samsung has acquired Boxee caught me a little by surprise. Boxee is software that I don't use much anymore, but it changed my life. Back in 2009 I first started using Boxee, which was then a fork of XBMC. Initially I was interested in the social aspects of the software, the ability to share and recommend content, but what became increasingly important to me was the presence of web content as a central feature of the user interface.
Back then if you decided to build yourself a media PC to connect to your television you would probably have ended up using software that put local files at the heart of the experience. Nothing wrong with that particularly if you have a lot of local content to view. Today, the continuing rollout of high speed broadband has increased the popularity of online sources of entertainment such as Netflix, Lovefilm Instant, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Blip and Spotify. The local file or disc is starting to look threatened. Boxee was the first app for me that accepted this change. They also had a system for creating third party apps that could integrate with the system at the precise time that a lot of people were upgrading to smart phones and becoming very enthusiastic about such things.
I had been experimenting with other software offering a ten foot user interface such as MythTV and even Freevo before Boxee but it was Boxee that really got me interested in Internet powered television. Through developing apps for the platform and exploring the other apps on offer I became interested not just in the technical aspects of this technology but the opportunities that the Internet as a television delivery platform offers independent producers to bring their stories to the silver screen. It became not just a technological interest but a cultural one too.
Apps for the TV
In early 2009 Boxee announced a developer contest. I don't normally go in for such things but this seemed like too much of an opportunity to miss. At the time I was working for The Open University and broached the idea to a couple of colleagues. In quite a short space of time we got a team together and even got some time from a proper graphic designer to produce an app that would bring the university's podcast content to the TV. The designs for the app were fantastic and when I initially saw them it was pretty amazing to see the idea start to become a reality.
It also made me slightly nervous as I had to go away and make all of this work, despite having never worked on a TV app before! We didn't win the competition but got a lot of positive feedback. Even though the app is no longer available I am still very proud of it and feel it was years ahead of its time. As universities fight to become global education brands I think apps like the one we developed will become more commonplace.
My second app was a completely "out there" experiment to make finding out how your MP has been voting as easy as finding out the football scores on teletext. "Your MP" was an idea created after a fairly awful evening of watching Government and Opposition working together to pass the Digital Economy Act 2010. It was quite awkward getting the app to work visually. A lot of information had to be presented and even getting to the end design made me think a lot about the "ten foot user experience".
Changes to work and leisure time
Today I work in a company that specialises in metadata solutions for the media industry. I don't build apps for TVs but work extensively with TV & Radio metadata as well as data from social websites that helps us increase our understanding of the media landscape. If it hasn't have been for Boxee I probably wouldn't have added lots of feeds to do with TV & the Internet to my Twitter account and found out about that job. At home I watch less broadcast TV and more web series than I used to. Boxee started me off on a journey to find a lot of this content and to learn that great TV does not have to be made by giant corporations.
Boxee have been a very interesting company to watch. Without a doubt some of their business decisions have left some people feeling quite annoyed, such as the decision to stop the open source version of Boxee and to leave behind the Boxee Box. However I am choosing to see the news of the acquisition with great optimism. Why? Look no further than "Smart TVs". They have apps and a user interface and are capable of grabbing content from the Internet, but many of these platforms never really got further than being just ok to use and a little uninspiring.
Boxee had many features that made it not just a delight to use but also fun. Samsung have a scale and a hardware production capability that few can match. If Samsung get this right and know how to make the most of the Team Boxee's talents they could end up with a very special product. One that will be a delight to use, bring the Internet right into the heart of television viewing and most importantly of all make people envious! TV is going though radical change right now, not at the pace of something like the mobile phone market but enough new opportunities are being created for money to be made and new faces finding themselves on TV. Let's hope that Samsung understand, at every level, the opportunity that they have.