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June 25, 2008

Hands-on with Boxee: A gorgeous social-media viewer [Video]

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Tuesday, I got a peek at Boxee, a personal media center that's currently in private alpha. My colleague Greg Sandoval wrote about it shortly after it was unveiled last week, but it's worth delving into what I think will be the next big thing in media center software.

Created by a small team of just under a dozen developers, the framework for Boxee is actually a project that was already in use in hundreds of thousands of machines around the world: Xbox Media Center. This software was created by gaming enthusiasts who had modified first-generation Xboxes to run it once it was sent over to the machine through FTP. When installed it would transform the box into a media server, which is what Boxee will do with your laptop or desktop computer.

While media servers like Windows Media Center, AppleTV, MythTV, SageTV, and others compete for attention and consumer dollars, Boxee founder and CEO Avner Ronen told me he thinks Boxee's got the upper hand because it's not requiring you to purchase new hardware, install it in place of an operating system you're already using, or buy into a marketplace/device being pushed by its creators. It's also completely free--at least for now. Ronen says a premium version later down the line is not out of the question, but that for now he wants to make it as available as possible.

So what does Boxee do? If you've ever used Joost, it's somewhat similar. You can plug in feeds of Web videos and browse through them, complete with video thumbnails and meta data. What makes it different is that it taps into your local media like videos, photos, and music you have saved on your hard drive. Both layers of media (online and offline) are wrapped up together with a social network of other Boxee users, so if you like something you're watching you can recommend it to friends. Ronen said one of his influences for this was watching TiVo and its built-in recommendation feature, and wanting something that was tailored more toward people who are using services like Delicious and Facebook, and are sharing links with one another all the time.

Boxee in action from Josh Lowensohn on Vimeo.

What makes the platform particularly exciting is that it's been built with developers in mind. That means anyone can work with the source code and create their own plug-ins, skins, and alternate interfaces. There's already a plug-in created that integrates Muxtape (as you can see in the video above), along with music from Last.fm, both of which can be controlled with an Apple remote if you're on a Mac--as is the rest of the interface.

For now Boxee is Mac-only, but coming in just a few weeks is the Linux version, with a Windows version to follow in the fall. That's not the end though, Ronen's plan is to get it into set-top boxes, gaming consoles, and eventually televisions. In the meantime, if you want to get your hands on it you can sign up for the alpha here. I'm told people are being let in on a weekly basis, so you'll have to exercise some patience.

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