Monday, February 2, 2009

To Boxee or not to Boxee

If you're longing for media convergence but not yet sure you want to spend big bucks to make it happen in a still-shifting television landscape, Boxee might be just the app for you.

Like millions of Americans, I find myself at a digital crossroads. I nervously eye reports on whether or not the U.S. Congress will delay the switch to digital television. More locally, I consider the fate of my older, 20-inch living room television set with its charming rabbit ears and snazzy, newly installed digital converter box.

Among the questions I'm considering are whether or not to put aside my spiteful attitude and, like all my neighbors, sign on to a cable or satellite service and, in another price bracket entirely, break down and purchase a bigger, high-definition, digital-ready set.

My problem is -- and lots of my acquaintances are describing the same dilemma -- the technology just isn't gelled enough for a technophile like me. (Don't look at me like that; television is my one techno-backwater.)

I imagine life with a big screen, a game console, a DVR, a hefty monthly cable bill, perhaps another video player, a wireless hub, and still no way to get my Netflix movies and TV shows over WiFi, and I shudder and stick my head back into the sand.

Enter Boxee, a media center software package that may address some of my issues over both the short and long terms. I signed on as an alpha tester back in December, when testing was closed to the general public. Now, though, you too can download the most recent of the frequently updated alpha versions. It's available for the Mac, Apple TV, Ubuntu and Windows platforms.

Boxee combines the aggregation functions of media software with social networking tools, much like the Goodreads or user interfaces. Users can select video, music and digital photography content from a variety of sources including other computers or storage devices on their home wireless networks. If nothing appeals, they can take a look at what friends and family have been watching lately through a "Friends Activity" menu.

In a perfect world, all content would be equally easy to integrate into the mix, but, as I whined about above, we are standing at a shaky place in the home entertainment landscape. Internet-based archived shows from major networks (including recently added ABC) are relatively easy to navigate and view on any of the four platforms using Boxee. Hulu, Comedy Central,, and Flickr also perform painlessly. Netflix instant viewing, though, is not yet available on all available platforms. Luckily for me, it works on the Mac.

The download and installation of the software on my iMac was relatively straightforward. Note that users must have Mac OS X version 10.4 or above. Life will be infinitely easier once I receive the added RAM I ordered for my PowerBook G4 so I can upgrade the operating system to the required level. Why, you ask? Well, because the whole idea is to plug the computer running the software directly into your TV set. That's the "media center" part.

Computer portability aside, the plugging in also is fairly simple. Users should be careful to match the video output port type of their computers to the cable they select, but even I, a television neanderthal, can tell a full-size DVI port from a Mini-DVI one. My cable cost under US$20. You probably have the required audio cable already lying around if you've lived through the past five years of MP3 players and auxiliary jacks.

According to updates on the Boxee site and news from the company's Twitter, a number of initiatives are in the works to bring home-media convergence nirvana to those of us sitting on the proverbial fence and waiting for, well, we don't know what, but we'll know it when we see it.

For one, Boxee is in talks with the likes of Sony to get the software incorporated into gaming systems. It may seem an odd marriage, but the Xbox 360 currently is the only gaming device that streams Netflix content, and that's a deal cut directly with Netflix and outside users' control.

Other projects include a Boxee remote app for the iPhone currently in the Apple review process. Since users who run Boxee software on their Apple TV systems currently must jailbreak the units to do so, the tenor of the Boxee-Apple relationship likely will remain cool for some time.

Still, for those who, like me, believe that the market will hear our pain and begin offering some realistic media convergence solutions in the form of one compact set-top box in the next year or so, Boxee offers a viable place to rest in the meantime. If I can make it work, you can too. Go download Boxee, and together we'll wait.