At the end of January, Boxee is killing its desktop application, which will bring to a close one of my favorite chapters in the world of connected television. Built on top of XBMC, an open-source software application that turns your PC into a fancy media-playback device, Boxee was one of the early operating systems for connected televisions. As a small startup without many industry connections, it didn’t wait for TV and set-top box manufacturers to come calling, but instead built a loyal fan base by releasing its software for free directly to the masses.
If you were savvy enough to connect your computer to television screen in 2008, you could download Boxee’s application and, using your smartphone as a remote, surf through hundreds of streaming video sources from across the Web. At the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show, a demo of Boxee prompted NPR’s Mario Armstrong to remark that, when you had a remote in your hand, “[the video] could be coming from a Web site, or it could be coming from over-the-air networks. You really don’t know. And you really don’t care. The fact that it was so simple really just floored me.”
But what made Boxee interesting to a certain consumer niche wasn’t just its ease of use. It was something else: with the exception of a proprietary social layer, Boxee’s desktop software was largely open source. It even had a plugin architecture and an app store where users could share their modifications. Along with professionally produced apps from the likes of MTV, Netflix, and Major League Baseball, you could find plenty of plugins from tech-savvy users.
And users modified the hell out of Boxee. They developed a BitTorrent client for it. They developed software to turn originally unsupported devices into Boxee remotes. They even ported the application to jailbroken first-generation Apple TVs.
Boxee, the company, was smart about building its fan base. It needed them to woo device manufacturers into adopting its software as a connected TV operating system. It also needed content providers to think of it as a platform worth developing for. So the company did something that still seems unusual in the world of connected TV: it got behind all these user modifications. When the Apple TV port of the software became popular, Boxee began developing it as an official distribution alongside its versions for OS X, Linux, and Windows. It even allowed that BitTorrent client in its app store, as contentious as the decision might have been among content providers.
What was fascinating was to watch users tweak their noses at the tele-technological system—that entrenched ecosystem of technologies, cultural expectations, and corporate players surrounding TV. In 2009, when the media giants owning Hulu apparently became concerned that the application might be a cord-cutting tool and demanded that Boxee remove access to Hulu content from the software, users wrote screenscrapers (to grab video embed codes) and plugins that put Hulu right back on their Boxee-connected TVs within 24 hours.
After enough such exchanges between Hulu and Boxee users, Boxee itself eventually got on board, arguing that its software was basically nothing more than a highly specialized browser and therefore entitled to access Hulu content under the site’s terms of service. Over the course of several weeks in 2009, Boxee and Hulu went back and forth in a fascinating technological game of spy-vs-spy, in which Hulu found inventive ways to block Boxee from its videos and Boxee found equally creative ways to restore them. Boxee eventually went so far as to bolster its claim to be just a specialized browser by rebuilding part of its software on the same XUL framework that powers Firefox.
Why would Boxee do all this? A few possible reasons come to mind. First, Hulu was, at the time, the most-requested feature on Boxee; to keep its nacent user base growing, it needed to satisfy this demand. Second, there was the issue of precedent. If Boxee was indeed following the terms of service offered by Hulu, but backed down anyway, they would likely have been pressured into blackouts by other content providers, too. And finally, given that large portions of the application were open source, there wasn’t much of a way to stop users from making and releasing modifications to illicitly grab any content that Boxee itself refused to cough up. Worse, users might start ignoring legal content sources like Hulu altogether and using Boxee primarily as a set-top BitTorrent client—not a healthy reputation for the young company.
So Boxee, which after all started as a hack of open-source XMBC, got behind the maker culture of its fan base, and in doing so spurred a debate that spanned from Freedom to Tinker to the floor of Congress. But while it marshaled that user base to get noticed, unsurprisingly, Boxee later found it had to become “respectable” to content providers in order to stay in business. As device manufacturers began to produce set-top boxes built with Boxee under the hood, companies like Netflix, which had never much minded the lack of DRM controls in the Boxee PC software, began to demand heightened security features in versions of the application that appeared on other devices. To many content providers, the TV screen and the computer screen were fundamentally different spaces. It was fine to allow tech-savvy users and open source developers control over their computers, but not so much their televisions. Too many business models at stake.
And now, forced with the prospect of continuing to fork their application between an increasingly black-boxed version available in neatly manufactured TVs and set-top boxes on the one hand, and a messy, anything-can-happen user-modifiable version for the desktop, Boxee is dropping support for the latter. It recently released one last desktop version of the software, with a cleaner user interface—and fewer features—than its predecessor, announcing:
As a platform, we have been able to bring Boxee for Computers to about 85% of the Boxee Box in terms of features and functionality. Due to extensive DRM and certification requirements premium apps will not be available on the downloadable version of Boxee, most notably Netflix, VUDU, and Pandora. … This 1.5 release will be the last version of Boxee for PC/Mac/Ubuntu. It will be available on Boxee.tv through the end of January. … To our computer users… to those who have come out to our NYC and SF meetups, talked with us at Engadget, GDGT, and Giz Gallery events, or enjoyed Austin BBQ with us during SxSW, or simply messaged with us on Facebook, Twitter, and our forums… thank you for all your support—we would not be where we are today without you. But we can’t stay here.
And with that, for Boxee PC users its the end of an era. Boxee’s PC period is far from the first time TV users have engaged in acts of appropriation or creative rebellion. And people will continue to hack Internet-connected televisions, to write interesting TV-related software, and to scrape video portals, all to get content on their own terms. Existing user-developers may even create a fork of Boxee—Foxee?—and continue what they started there. But at least one chapter in this high-flying experiment of mashing up maker culture with the traditional television content industry is coming to a close. People will still be able to write apps for Boxee boxes, but probably never with the same level of freedom they enjoyed on their PCs.
The tangled relationships between Boxee, its users, and the tele-technological system it sought to appropriate and integrate itself into have been a fine, even beautiful, example of what Bryan Pfaffenberger called “technological dramas”—conversations about values and freedoms that by accident or by design get veiled in technical components. His notion helps us to understand technological innovation and appropriation—such as when Hulu, Boxee, and its users hacked back and forth, putting up and tearing down walls around content—as forms of public discourse in their own right, acts which are equal parts technical and symbolic, containing within them claims about who should have access to information and on what terms.
And as much as they are technical salvos that do jobs and symbolic work, they also serve as props in our more conventional discourse. Boxee’s announcement that its software would run on the same framework as Firefox was a technical improvement that made the software easier to use, but it was also a way of setting a stage, of creating a moment in which the company could attempt to exert control over the discourse surrounding its product—both formally in the form of the launch event and accompanying public statements about the new framework, and informally as users worked with and experienced the new interface components it brought about.
Put simply, Boxee’s software, along with the modifications users made to it, weren’t just interesting or important because of what they did—heaven knows there are other set-top boxes and pieces of media center software—but for what they said. That’s the thought that’s continually compelling to me: that code is speech, and that to study technology is, in effect, to develop our listening skills.
[Cross-posted to Hacktivision; Image Sources: Screenshot is of the Boxee desktop app’s “Shows” view; Boxee and Hulu logo mashup by Josh Braun]