First Look: Boxee - The Social Media Centre

September 14, 2008 | 08:04

Tags: #8 #alpha #blog #centre #first #hardy-heron #look #media #player #review #social

Companies: #boxee #ubuntu

Improvements! We've still a long road ahead

The biggest improvement we want to suggest is interface customisation! I'm still looking to remove all the crap I never use and the Boxee start page just gets too cluttered. I recently installed the original XBMC port for Ubuntu and tried that and I have to say I know what I'd use - the interface is sharp, and while it's quite flash in its transitions, it's incredibly nippy.

The interface needs a more Widget-esq appeal that allows me to drag and drop shortcuts and features to exactly where I want - not having a 'one size fits all' but an 'I like doing this' mantra. Oh, and a small niggle was tick boxes and not radio buttons: on a high resolution display from the other side of the room a small dot is very difficult to see!

What Boxee currently does is half way between being a good media centre and a good Internet video surfing/discovering experience but both are two halves that don't currently make a whole. It's not as good as Miro for Internet media, and it's no where near as good as XBMC was or MythTV (well, perhaps) when it comes to being a media centre.

If anything, it's not a media centre so much, more of a media player since it has no option to record TV, rip DVDs (again, a widget option?) and organise content to personal tastes. Recording TV opens a whole other can of worms though, as TV/Satellite/cable recording with the many different global standards, EPG guides and TV cards with substandard drivers will just cause headaches for the developers and users alike.

But at the moment the Boxee website is just a list of "things everyone has watched" and your profile, there's a lot more work to go into it that's evidently clear, and it's way behind Cyberlink's Moovie Live service; obviously, that's a corporate service and many enthusiasts want to be a part of a movement, not a corporation. Having said that, Boxee could learn a thing or two from Moovie Live - like automatically popping up with the option to rate your video after you've watched it or stopped it, and if you chose to ignore it, it should keep a list so you can rate them all later, if you like.

Media Centre first and social interaction second - is that right?

Going back to Boxee, I realised that the social aspect feels like it's been tacked on, rather than designed with it in mind. The website clearly has ideas but needs a lot more work to bring people into it, and the voting/recommending needs to be far more apparent. After all, the whole point of using Boxee is to be social - it's the niche it is trying to carve out, yet it doesn't feel aggressive enough in its push to know whether 'do you like this?' or 'your friends liked this!' or 'Twitter/blog/Facebook this!'. If you didn't care about telling everyone about everything, you'd go and use the original XBMC client.

Mind you, (hypothetically, of course) I sure as hell wouldn't risk announcing to my friends list I watched a video of some silicone-enhanced ladies removing their clothes for the camera on a (lonely) Friday night. Or worse, what about having a list of potential copyright infringements? (Again, hypothetically) 'Richard recommends Kung.Fu.Panda.TS.XVID.avi' - even if only my chosen friends can see my list, what about future updates to the Boxee website that try to make it more social?

I don't want to sound negative about the whole social aspect, because I feel that the recommendations section when I log on can open up a whole world of different media to people. Right now we're limited to sending links over MSN and email which we do all the time in the office. Constant yells of "OH MY GOD THAT MUST HAVE HURT" or "Wow, check this <insert latest game> trailer!!" followed by the inevitable "link me!!" calls from others in the office can be extended outside to all your other friends as well. There's a huge potential of creating a "Face plant appreciation network" (or whatever), or organising an "Everyone remember to watch and vote on the latest Zero Punctuation on Wednesday at 5pm".

However I feel that socialising media outside of your living room is probably not really a viable user model. With other social networking things you can do them at work in another Internet tab, or browse Facebook on your iPhone or SMS in a new Twitter comment while you're on the go. Forums and commenting are communities that vary greatly in content, and really all these things are topic second, social first. In the case of Boxee it's what it is first and social second and I'm not sure if that really works so well.

Talking to Boxee's Developers

Since this is an Alpha, the application can change dramatically between now and its official release so we approached the Boxee developers again with our concerns and criticisms, asking for either an explanation of why things were done in certain ways or whether stuff simply hadn't been coded yet.

While [boxee has] come a long way, is only part of the way to where we envision it. In Alpha we're focused on fixing core functionality bugs and extending the platform onto Mac, Linux, and Windows.

Our goal when creating boxee was to make it the Firefox of the media centre space: open source, easily extendible and customizable. By the end of the year we hope to release an application directory or plug-in manager to help meet that goal. We'll be tweaking the social and navigation aspects of boxee based on user feedback (like yours). I think it's fair to say we've built boxee from the ground up with social features, but we've only scratched the surface of what's possible because of our focus on releasing for the 3 platforms before we delve deeply into more features. That said, allowing people to customize boxee and interact with their existing current social networks through boxee applications/plug-ins will be a huge step for us. Even now seeing what my friends are watching on boxee via twitter has helped me discover new movies and music.

As per your recommendations about WASTE, it's a great idea, but we're focused on bringing legal sources of content to users from sites like Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, etc. so you can instantly act on what friends are watching/recommending. We think adding this element of purchasing/downloading into the player will be key for the future of entertainment.

Overall we're really happy with where we're at (after a year of development from a team of eight) and we look forward to some major additions throughout the rest of the year.

So there we have it - plenty yet to expect in the coming months, but is trying to develop for three platforms simultaneously with an in-house team of eight biting off more than you can chew? Development practices aside, I greatly anticipate the inclusion of application plug-ins will be major boon for customisation and is potentially very huge for Boxee, but it relies on the popularity of the product in the first place in order to suck enough of an extended developer base in. There maybe a plethora of Firefox plug-ins out there, but Firefox is used by lots of people in a browser market of just five (serious) products.

On the other side, there are more open source projects out there than you can shake a stick at with great ideas but are under resourced, so at large part of me encourages the Boxee staff to get a proof of concept out first, then concentrate on making the world happy after that proof of concept has been successful.

The idea that you can tie in a revenue stream to Boxee is also a great idea for developers at least, because it certainly creates an incentive to get things done, and Apple's iTunes is a perfect example of having a media centre/buying portal that works. However I'd strongly encourage not overly Americanising it if it wants universal appeal - there's nothing more frustrating than not being able to use a key feature because I live on the wrong side of the Atlantic. Also, if it goes down the route of digital distribution, that brings a whole bag of DRM issues too - is that compatible with an open source lifestyle?

For what Boxee is though, it's a great foundation for something a little different and don't feel we're criticising an Alpha, because we've seen huge updates month on month - we're merely saying there's still a lot to do. For home theatre enthusiasts it might be worth a splash to download it and watch it evolve, but for the rest of us - I think we'll take another look to see what features finally made the cut when it's in beta.
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