June 27, 2009

Boxee and the promise of open media

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JD LasicaAt last weekend’s Open Video Conference, where 850 people turned out at NYU to discuss the future of open media, the standout open source project — at least for me — was Boxee. It’s not so much a company as a cause.

This is a big subject, so, first, a word about the conference, put on by the Participatory Culture Foundation, Yale Internet Society Project, Kaltura, iCommons and the Open Video Alliance. I wrote about the promise of open source video earlier this month, participated in the conference, and now have a much better understanding of the issues at stake.

Jenny Attiyeh, host and producer for Boston-based ThoughtCast, conducted interviews at the conference and produced this riveting 4-minute video (embedded above) that looks at the importance of open media for getting the word out about the demonstrations and government crackdown in Iran.

openvideoMark Surman of Mozilla, whom I interviewed (I’ll post the video in the coming weeks), gave a stirring talk and wrote this on his commonspace blog: “We love [the Web] because it’s all about transparency, remixability, participation. It’s about creativity and innovation. It’s open. And it’s wonderful.

“Sadly, we cannot say these things about online video today. To be sure, have seen a huge explosion of video creativity on the web. And web cams and phones have made video almost like an everyday language. Yet, the legal, distribution and technical underpinnings of online video remain much like television — opaque, immutable and centralized.”

The Open Video Alliance also summed up what’s at stake:

As internet video matures, we face a crossroads: will technology and public policy support a more participatory culture — one that encourages and enables free expression and broader cultural engagement? Or will online video become a glorified TV-on-demand service, a central part of a permissions-based culture?

Open Video is a broad-based movement of video creators, technologists, academics, filmmakers, entrepreneurs, activists, remixers, and many others. When most folks think of “open,” they think of open source and open codecs. They’re right — but there’s much more to Open Video. Open Video is the growing movement for transparency, interoperability, and further decentralization in online video. These qualities provide more fertile ground for independent producers, bottom-up innovation, and greater protection for free speech online.

YouTube and other online video applications are rightly celebrated for empowering end-users; however, online video lacks some of the essential qualities that make text and images on the web such powerful tools for free speech and technical innovation. Email, blogs, and other staples of the open web rely on ubiquitous and interoperable technologies that have low barriers to entry; they are massively decentralized and resistant to censorship or regulation. Video, meanwhile, relies on centralized distribution and proprietary technologies which can threaten cultural discourse and innovation.

My friends Ryanne Hodson and Jay Dedman put together this terrific compilation of interviews about open video — check out the amazing variety of organizations involved in the movement.

Boxee: Setting your TV free

Boxee CEO Avner Ronen

Boxee CEO Avner Ronen (photo by Steve Garfield

Boxee, which styles itself as an “open, connected, social media center, took a big step into the mainstream Tuesday with the release of its Windows application. It’s software you plunk into your laptop — not hardware or a set-top box. (Here’s the Wikipedia entry.)

Here’s how it works:

“On a laptop or connected to an HDTV, boxee’s free software lets you navigate all your personal movies, TV shows, music and photos, as well as streaming content from websites like MLB, Netflix, Pandora, Last.fm, and Flickr from one screen with a remote.”

And here’s why Boxee is an important ingredient in the open media ecosystem: It’s not for couch potatoes, as their home page misimplies, but rather for people who want to put the Web in their living rooms. There’s nothing passive or lean-back about taking control of your media intake by wrestling it away from Hollywood, the cable companies and satellite operators.

You cannot watch video from the open Web on AppleTV — only from Apple’s licensed partners. You can’t watch Web video on Joost — only from Joost partners.

On Boxee, you can watch anything on the open Web.

In my 2005 book Darknet: Hollywood’s War Against the Digital Generation (which had five stars on Amazon until the anti-free culture zealots — who didn’t read the book — dove in), I interviewed Warren Lieberfarb, the father of the DVD (the chapter is online here):

Hollywood looks at interactive media as an opportunity to shop or upsell merchandise, but the studios get nervous about true interactivity because they lose control over the entertainment experience.

Warren Lieberfarb, the visionary former head of Warner Home Video, thinks it won’t be long before we’ll be able to purchase and store our own personal collection of movies and transport it from device to device, anywhere within an extended home domain.

“I see a very, very, very big transformation that’s going to change the balance of power in media,” he says, choosing his words with care. “It will step away from the broadcast and cable networks to specialized niche programming that will be accessible through on-demand services. That is the revolution. And nothing is going to stop this.” …

“All this is going to bypass the broadcast and cable networks,” he says. “The whole notion that you sit at a television at a designated time and you tune in to watch what they say you watch—it’s over. It’s going to take a while, but it’s over.”

Warren Lieberfarb

Warren Lieberfarb

Just as the Internet and the proliferation of low-cost digital tools have reshaped other media, so the new technologies will transform our notion of television. A few years from now, when you say “television,” it may no longer be synonymous with the box in your living room because you also will be watching it on your handheld mobile device or tablet PC. “What’s on TV” may no longer be synonymous with network and cable programming because you’ll be able to access video feeds from a wide range of new content providers. When you do watch television in your living room, you’ll still wield a remote control, but you may be watching it on a stand-alone digital box or one that’s hooked up to a media-center device or wirelessly connected to a PC, giving you the power to pull niche material from a gushing fire hose of sources.

“People are going to discover that content doesn’t have to be produced by the major media companies,” Lieberfarb says. …

Lieberfarb is not saying the old order of Big Media programming will be overthrown by a cabal of camcorder-wielding Young Turks. But he is saying that the major media companies will no longer exercise exclusive control over what Americans watch on TV. …

“Change is not going to come from the media conglomerates that have too much at stake in protecting the status quo.”
— Warren Lieberfarb
Formidable business interests will oppose a mass rollout of easily accessible on-demand media for the public because it threatens their existing business models, Lieberfarb says. In the years ahead, vertically integrated media companies will use their marketplace dominance and their clout in Congress, the regulatory agencies, and the courts in an effort to maintain their role as exclusive intermediaries, as gatekeepers of information and entertainment.

“That’s why I think audiovisual media, available online on demand, will take place from the edge”—here he holds his hands wide apart—”and not from the center of the media industry. Change is not going to come from the media conglomerates that have too much at stake in protecting the status quo.” …

How to put television’s pieces back together? We need to arrive at a new place of user participation and interaction. The tools are at hand: a converged cable TV and Internet gateway that lets subscribers pay a small monthly fee (80 percent of Americans already pay for cable TV or satellite) in return for a high-speed freeway ramp connecting us to hundreds of niche video channels created by entrepreneurs, amateurs, and independent professionals.

Will the companies controlling the pipes into our houses also control what comes through it? Will they continue to be our visual gatekeepers? “No,” Lieberfarb says firmly. “People will be able to access any Web sites delivering movies and video.”

That is exactly what this battle is still about. We are now at the formative stages of this war over our television viewing experience.

A number of software applications have been around for years that let you connect your laptop to your digital television to watch Web video on your TV set, but they were kludgy and clunky. Boxee makes it easy. What’s more, it hooks you into a social community:

Users can see what their friends are watching and listening to via an online Web feed or directly inside of the application. Once installed, the home screen shows a list of content suggested by friends, their activities and even their newly added content. Users can also use the popular micro-blogging service Twitter or FriendFeed to automatically share what they’re watching or listening to, with the rest of the world.

BOXEE_LogoAt the Open Video Conference, Boxee CEO Avner Ronen described the Boxee open source media center as “a Firefox for the home.” You run it on your laptop, connect it to your TV, use a remote control to access videos, photos and online services like YouTube and Hulu.

Unlike companies like Microsoft and Sony, which put their own business interests above their customers’ interests, Boxee is focused strictly on serving the user. Conveniently, Ronen said: “We generate no revenues so it’s hard to be profitable. We don’t aspire to profitability.” The company is not charging for subscriptions or using advertising.

“The entertainment companies’ mindset is: If it’s in the living room, it’s ours.”
— Jonathan Zittrain
Big Entertainment is not pleased, for a number of reasons. First, companies like Hulu don’t have the licensing rights for its programming to appear on your TV set — just on your computer screen. Second, the ads that appear on the Hulu website do not appear when you stream the Hulu video to your TV with Boxee (with good reason — they’re made for a small screen, not a TV screen). Third, programming created for the Web looks different on a digital TV — the colors bleed differently, for one thing. Fourth, and most important, Hollywood loses its control over your TV viewing experience. If you can access any video site on the Web, then Hollywood and the cable companies lose control over what you can buy or rent.

In February, Hulu contacted Boxee asking them to explain themselves. As Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain said from the stage: “The entertainment companies’ mindset is: If it’s in the living room, it’s ours.”

Ronen said from the stage: “We now understand the industry’s concerns. We understand they want to control how videos and commercials are getting to the TV. They want control over the timing and delivery. But we’re not planning to slow down or change what we’re doing.” Huge applause from the audience.

On Tuesday, when more then 800 people turned out for the party in San Francisco marking the release of Boxee for Windows (it previously worked just on the Mac and Linux), Boxee took a big step forward into the limelight.

The jocular Avner says, “Consumer behavior is changing, resistance is futile.”

The reason Hollywood hasn’t come after Boxee to crush it? Not many people know about it. At least not yet.

Hollywood thinks it still owns your television. Time will tell if they’re right.

More background

• Mark Surman of Mozilla at commonspace: Building an open video movement!

• Christopher Blizzard of Mozilla: why open video?

• Socialbrite: The promise of open source video

• TechCrunch: Boxee Swings For The Fences: Windows Support, MLB, Digg, Tumblr And Current All Launch Tonight

• Mashable: What is Boxee Announcing Tonight? [Live Video]

• ZDNet: How-to: Install boxee and XBMC on the Apple TV

• NewTeeVee: For Boxee CEO, Hulu Desktop Brings Hope

• Engadget: Hulu to PlayStation 3 browsers: “This video is not available on your platform”JD Lasica, founder and former editor of Socialbrite, is co-founder of Cruiseable. Contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.

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