Avner Ronen and his friends turned an interest in the XBMC media centre into the headline-making, TV-transforming media centre Boxee. We rung him up to talk about streaming media, software development, gadgets, and Boxee's future.
Ronen co-founded one of the web's first instant messaging start-ups, Odigo, and worked as a tech executive at its buyer until about 2004. That's when, as chronicled by TuxGeek, Ronen invited friends over to check out the new $US2,000 Windows Media centre system he'd bought to hook up to a big-screen TV and manage his media. A close friend noted that he had pretty much the same living room setup for one-sixth the cost—by putting XBMC on his Xbox.
After years of contributing code to the open-source XBMC project, Ronen and a group of friends re-worked it in 2007 into a platform that streamed net video along with local files, then added a social networking layer to it that allowed for recommending, rating, and checking out what friends were watching. The start-up business, Boxee, also helped set up the XBMC project as a foundation and helped fund its initial server costs.
Boxee's alpha software for Mac OS X and Linux has gone through a lot of changes and upgrades in its short existence. With help from third-party hackers, it developed a version that transforms the Apple TV into something worth owning. Hulu, the increasingly popular (albeit US-only) video streaming site, cut Boxee's access after complaints from content providers (and, we'd presume, the cable companies that saw a big thing coming). Boxee kept communications open, but got the video back with help from a Mozilla-based browser in Boxee that can theoretically stream anything your laptop can.
At the moment, Boxee's focused on bringing more net media firms and third-party coders into the fold with a developer prize challenge, as well as publicly releasing a Windows alpha in June. Ronen talked on the phone with us earlier this week to discuss the challenges, possibilities, and, eventually, business models his young firm is facing.
Disclosure: This editor has met Avner at SXSW, and, more to the point, is kind of a big fan of the Boxee software. In fact, I'd probably shovel a driveway or two if it would get Lost streaming through Boxee on Apple TV. So it's not exactly a neutral or hard-pressing interview, but we think we managed a pretty serious face through most of it. We hope.
Lifehacker: What tools, gadgets, or software do you use to manage your day-to-day Boxee work?
Avner Ronen: At Boxee, we're pretty much a Google shop. We use Google Apps for our email, calendar, and Docs for documentation we're working on together. We're pretty much in the cloud for our day-to-day tools. Skype for talking with each other, whether it's Andrew on the West coast, or the team in Tel Aviv.
Lifehacker: What's a typical day like for you?
Avner Ronen: I start my day by 6am or so, and I'm on email and catching up on some Twitter. During the day, I keep a Twitter search running all the time. If people mention Boxee, even if I don't respond, I'm definitely aware of what they're saying, issues they're having, and I note it.
... I'm also monitoring GetSatisfaction, and if I'm not answering an issue on my own, I'm sending it to our team. That's pretty much how we work. When I'm mobile, I'm using TwitterBerry, or (Google) Talk on my BlackBerry. I dumped the iPhone a while ago, the first generation. I just wasn't convinced it was up to par, and I got addicted to the email experience on a BlackBerry.
Lifehacker: Hulu, right now, is mostly working on Boxee, and I'm assuming that has something to do with the XULRunner browser that's baked into Boxee now. But Hulu sill occasionally breaks. Are those technical problems, or is there still some back-and-forth coding going on between Hulu and Boxee?
Avner Ronen: Hulu, right now, is mostly working, most of the time. From time to time it breaks, and we don't quite know how much of it is intentional. But it's a very popular service on Boxee, and we monitor it and try to respond when people complain, as with Netflix.
Lifehacker: How does the built-in browser change that front?
Avner Ronen: We'd implemented flash playback as a built-in part of the original Hulu implementation. As we started to grow and support more and different kinds of players, even those built on Flash, you saw they had a different flavor and response. We took that step of building a full browser into Boxee so if someone wanted to access Vimeo, Viddler, any web site that has Flash video, Boxee will play it. It's given us better Hulu support, and better performance, but our goal over time is, the user can access any video on the internet, and we'll make it a 10-foot friendly experience.
You've opened up the API for developers, and got back some pretty cool apps. But they generally focus on early-adopter, web-centric content. How do you reach beyond early adopters to get more mainstream providers embracing Boxee?
Avner Ronen: I think at this stage of Boxee, realistically, when it comes to the big media companies, the big studios, we have to do a lot of the foot work. We're not at the stage where we can expect (content providers) to be investing in and developing Boxee apps on their own. They need more guidance, and incentives to make apps on their own. We are having discussions with bigger media companies aobut developing Boxee experiences around their brands. ... We're spending time with them, and trying to make it a hands-on process. As we mature, more and more of those efforts are going to be done by those big companies by themselves ...
I think the future of the experience in the living room is going to change. There can be different content built around a show, and movies, as we move forward, and that's where I think we're going to see Boxee fit in, in helping developers and users create a different kind of experience than we're used to.
Lifehacker: You've posted that a newer Mac Mini hooked up to a TV is kind of the ideal Boxee experience at the moment. You use it at home?
Avner Ronen: I do. I use a combination of the Apple Remote and the iPhone remote with it. We're hoping that, over the next 12 months, we'll see more powerful devices come out that are meant for TV connectivity. We still don't have the (official) Windows beta version out, but when it is release, there should be different platforms that can take advantage of it. Dell's Studio line, and devices priced $US300 or less, are going to be a big change in making it easy for people to connect a PC to their TV.
Lifehacker: What's one of the most requested new features you get from your users?
Lifehacker: How do you and your team decide what gets worked on next? Seems like there's an infinite number of apps to work on, features to add ...
Avner Ronen: We check out the stuff reports to us via Twitter, and we keep an aggregated list of what is most requested, the most wanted features. We also use GetSatisfaction, where users vote on stuff they'd like to see reported, and that's our main source for interaction with users. Then we have our own ideas for where we should take the product. We build a to-do list between each version, and step back occasionally to ask what we'd like to see in each version.
Lifehacker: The Windows version has been in private alpha for a good while now. Is it a bigger move to release a Windows version than Mac and Linux?
Avner Ronen: I think so. It should provide for a big bump in the number of users ... We don't have exact numbers, or even a ballpark estimate, of how many users are on which platforms. But I hope we'll be able to go and offer Boxee to a lot more users with Windows, and people can recommend it to more people.
Lifehacker: Are there any developments in television technology that affect how Boxee might grow up?
Avner Ronen: Wireless HD is of interest, definitely. The amount of cables you have to plug into the back of the TV, the anxiety around it, having to get someone to come to your house just to set up a TV .... (wireless) would be a great achievement.
3D TV is, at this stage, intriguing. I didn't get a chance to watch too much of it in action, just a few TVs at a few events, but I'm not sure yet. OLED could be an amazing technology, but it's not exactly at my price point yet (laughs).
Lifehacker: What's the hardest and most frustrating part of running the Boxee project?
Avner Ronen: The hardest and most frustrating part is that there's so much we want to do, but so little we can realistically. That's that hardest part, deciding what we want to do with our time. We're a small team, and it's very hard to get our hands around everything. Every time we're making decisions on the next version, it hurts to see things left on the editing floor.
Lifehacker: What's the best part of the Boxee work?
Avner Ronen: What I'm happiest to be doing, the best part? When I'm wearing a Boxee shirt, and someone comes up on the subway tells me that they're using it. The interaction with the users is the best part of what I do.
Lifehacker: Is there a monetisation model in place, or one coming along?
Avner Ronen: There is nothing that is really in place. The way we view it, the focus of Boxee right now is to improve the user base ... When we think about monetisation, it's centered around helping content owners get in front of consumers, enabling them to monetise, whether that's subscription fees or a la carte. Drive more users to their content. If we can help them do that, we have a business model. ]