A wall divides broadcast TV and broadband video: the wall between the living room and home office. The living room is home to what was once considered the small screen, TV, and the home office is now home to even smaller screens on laptop and desktop computers.
The plans to bridge those worlds are slowly coming together, but keep running into obstacles. The BBC is trying to marry its iPlayer broadband catch-up service with broadcast digital TV via Project Canvas. This is facing stiff resistance from consumer electronics manufacturers and others in the television industry, such as UK satellite TV giant BSkyB. While the players in the electronics and television industry jockey for position, developers are moving into the gap.
XBMC, formerly XBox Media Centre, is one of several projects to create a media center platform using common computer hardware. Despite the name, the media center is cross-platform and runs on a number of platforms including the Xbox, Linux, Windows, Apple’s Mac OS and Apple TV OS. It organizes all of your music and video files, and with plug-ins, it can be used as a digital video recorder or as a viewer for online video from traditional broadcasters and online video providers.
XBMC has a huge range of plug-ins, but they lack the simple installation process of adding a plug-in to Firefox or installing an iPhone app. However, XBMC has spawned a number of spin-offs that are pushing innovation well beyond that of the TV establishment.
MediaPortal on Windows, Plex for the Mac, the commercial movie service Voddler and social media player Boxee all have their roots in the XBMC project.
The XBMC spinoffs were created by developers looking to solve a specific problem. MediaPortal developer Erwin Beckers began the project in 2004 because the XBox didn’t support TV cards. Since the project forked from XBMC, the code has been almost entirely rewritten.
In December 2007, developer Elan Feingold was looking for a media center application for his Apple Mac and began porting XBMC to the platform. He worked under the XBMC project until May last year, when there was a decision to split his work to a new fork. Plex was born.
Feingold began work on a media center component to bring together web-based multimedia services. Plex has 120 plug-ins or applications and growing.
Boxee, led by CEO Avner Ronen, also takes a trick from social networking and social media services such as Last.fm, which allows you to rate music, pictures and videos and recommend content to your friends. When you log into Boxee, you see what your friends have watched and what they recommend.
Installing applications is easy in both Plex and Boxee. You can browse a list of image, audio or video applications that allow viewing or listening to a range of traditional and internet-based media.
Once you’ve connected your computer to your flatpanel TV, you can switch from catching up on a BBC show you missed, and then listen to music on Last.fm and then watch a funny video from the Onion News Network, all from your sofa.
Plex and Boxee also have applications for services such as Hulu, a US-based video-on-demand service that features content from NBC, ABC and News Corp’s Fox network. CBS is the only network without a presence on the increasingly popular service. Neither Plex nor Boxee circumvent the regional restrictions of services such as Hulu, but that hasn’t prevented a running battle between Hulu and these media center applications.
Hulu has never officially contacted Feingold, but has deployed what he called “behind the scenes counter-measures.” Once, when it looked at the source of Hulu after the service stopped working with its software, it found an HTML tag named PLEX, which presumably broke the service.
The relationship with content companies is not completely adversarial, with some companies contacting Feingold to add their content to Plex.
“Most people get that having more eyeballs is better,” he said. Boxee’s conflicts have been a bit more public, but Hulu is working again.
Ronen wants to help content owners to make money, while Boxee is working with content companies for premium services such as Major League Baseball’s on-demand service. He also sees that there is the opportunity for content companies to sell their own premium applications, much like Apple’s iPhone app store.
“Content owners will need to follow the users. If users are on [the] Internet, on computers watching TV, they will need to be there,” Ronen said.
Both Feingold and Ronen know that users wanting to use their software face a conundrum. The flexibility of media centre applications comes at a cost — and that’s the cost of dedicating a computer to Plex or Boxee.
“I’m highly cognisant that to run software, you need to buy a US$500 Mac Mini, completely aware of the barrier to entry,” Feingold said.
He wants people to be able “to have the Plex experience” without having to buy themselves another computer.
Online and download services are now developing their own set-top boxes for video download rental services such as Netflix and Vudu in the US.
“I don’t think that people want another box,” Feingold said.
Connected TVs are now able to display a limited amount of online video content, but in five years, Feingold sees apps as part of TV’s future.
Feingold would love to work full-time on Plex, but for now it remains a labor of love. Boxee landed US$6 million in a second round of funding in August. One of its goals for next year is to get on additional devices beyond computers and Apple TV. It won’t be building a Boxee set-top box, but it is working to get Boxee on a number of devices, including set-top boxes, games consoles and connected TVs.
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