Boxee, Apple and Flash, Oh My!

The list of streaming media companies wishing to hop on the iPhone/iPad bandwagon is growing, and you can add Boxee to the list.  Boxee CEO and Founder, Avener Ronen has stated that the company is changing its priorities to reflect the popularity of mobile computing, particularly in light of the recent iPad launch.  Ronen told the Los Angeles Times that the device is “…perfect for video. You can start watching in bed. And then just take it with you.”  He added that having an iPad in hand really changed his view of where Boxee ought to be spending its time.

Boxee, headquarted in Tel Aviv and New York City, offers a free, open-source platform for multiple operating systems which integrates social networking with Internet media streams and personal video libraries for playback via any type of desktop or laptop computer.  As of now, that meant watching content via the computer or by connecting a PC to a TV using an array of adapters, which for some has proved inconvenient, and for others has kept them from making Boxee anything but an online novelty to catch up on missed shows and other fare that’s fine for PC viewing.  Boxee is introducing a set-top box made by D-Link that will stream a variety of content (movies, TV shows, music, and social networks) directly to your TV without involving the family PC at all.  At CES they showcased the potential of the Boxee Box (marketing must have had a helluva time coming up with that one) which will be capable of handling a variety of streaming video formats including Adobe Flash.  Suddenly, the spotlight is off the “Box” and onto mobile platforms as Boxee will, in the near future, roll out versions of a mobile app, first for the iPad and then for the iPhone, with other devices to follow (hello, Android).

Streaming media is proving to be exactly what consumers want on their mobile devices, and with the release last year of an expanded MLB.com app capable of streaming live games the floodgates for mobile streaming were opened on the iPhone.  Streaming video, whether live or stored content, has always been the great dream of 3G proponents, but it’s been viewed as more of a novelty for other devices capable of streaming short video clips, some TV shows and other content suitable for small screens.  The rise of the iPhone changed that considerably.

Though the iPhone has had some streaming apps for well over a year now, they weren’t exactly what the public was clamoring for (Livestation’s Al Jazeera app, for instance, or the very weak NetTV or TVUplayer apps that brought some streaming of international broadcasts).  Now the true movers and shakers of the nascent streaming media industry are coming out to play.  The bonafide Netflix app has been a huge success for the newly released iPad and is now expected soon for the iPhone and other advanced mobile devices that have followed in Apple’s wake.  While some players have already jumped in to produced user-friendly apps for Apple’s popular mobile platform thus far they’ve been minor league apps like Joost, JustinTV and, most recently, MobiTV.  While a few of the apps are free, it’s often buyer beware as app-heads discover certain ones like MobiTV cost additional fees to make them do anything except take up home screen space.

Along comes Netflix, and whereas AT&T used to say it couldn’t be done (unless you have the clout of Major League Baseball behind you *cough*), fantastic looking streaming media over 3G networks for iPhone is pretty much a reality, though Wi-Fi will continue to be the champ when you want a higher-definition picture such as the MLB.com app is capable of producing.  All it took was a few big players to push AT&T toward permitting streaming over it’s 3G network and now iPad users are already experiencing ABC TV and Netflix with iPhone users to soon get the same types of streaming services.  It’s easy to see why Boxee feels “Box”ed-in suddenly, and why they’re now rushing to hire Objective-C code warriors savvy in their understanding of Apple’s development standards while also putting word out to Android devs that their skills are also highly desired.

With GoogleTV on the horizon, Google (in partnership with Intel and Sony) is putting itself direct competition with companies like Roku and Boxee.  Ronen probably figures the time is right to branch out and gain attention beyond the crowded home-theater market and after playing around with his own iPad he understands that people want to take their service wherever they may roam (on land or sea or foam)— whether in the kitchen, in bed or in the john— it’s a smart move by a company seeking to dominate the streaming media industry.

Now, if they could just solve that damn Hulu problem they have

Hulu is still the go-to word in streaming for many people.  Well known for allowing access to content from Disney/ABC, NBC, Fox TV and cable shows as well as movies (licensed or in the public domain), Hulu went mainstream for many as soon as it launched thanks to some clever and persistent marketing that included a memorable commercial that aired during the Superbowl in 2009 (because, they’re aliens, remember?).  While AppleTV, PlayStation3 and other streaming-capable systems have paywalls that include subscription or ala carte services, people still like their free whenever they can get it, and Hulu, Boxee and other services currently provide that… subject to change, of course.  What separates Boxee from Hulu however is that it lacks direct licensing of content by major studios and the like. Up to now, Boxee has aggregated the content of other streaming services into one convenient playback system.  That’s about to change with their focus on mobile devices.  As Ronen indicated to the Times, Boxee is ready to start making direct deals with the studios for content streaming.

Much like Netflix, Hulu and other online streaming companies, Boxee also faces the vexing question of what to do about Adobe Flash.  Boxee’s current program for desk- or laptop computers reflects its basis as a social media browser that morphed into being a social media home theater center.  For the iPad and iPhone, Boxee will have the same conundrum of how to develop an app that skirts Apple’s shutout of Flash-based programs and media streams.  Never fear, for if Netflix can do it, you can pretty much count on everyone else figuring it out whether by transcoding for a greater variety of formats other than Flash.  One area of concern in all this is that Ronen says Boxee might rush an app out to beat Hulu to the party… if that’s the case, expect the first iteration of their app for iPad/iPhone to be a work-in-progress that may offer fewer, and very basic, features.  Nevertheless, by getting any type of app out there to be downloaded by millions, Boxee is seeking to do more than survive in the turbulent world of media streaming services and technology, it’s looking to capitalize on its initial successes and outwit competitors while becoming the ultimate resource for streaming media on-demand, and that’s a sign of a healthy company.

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Christian Hokenson

Christian Hokenson

Christian Hokenson enjoys knife throwing, growing exotic mosses, and that warm spot where the sun shines through the corrugated box. Christian also writes for Gadget Review. You can also find Christian on Google+, and Twitter.

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