If this is the first time you've heard of boxee, it's probably because you use Windows PCs. As popular as boxee is, it still has a limited audience, as it is available as a public download only for the Mac OS, Apple TV, and Ubuntu Linux platforms. Those versions are all in public alpha, which any registered user can download (registration is free). A private alpha was recently released for Windows systems, but that download is available via invitation only.
Boxee is essentially an intuitive, easy-to-navigate GUI that resides on top of the OS when it is running. It accesses videos, music, and photos on your system as well as from networked devices, such as media servers. It also currently has built-in support for 18 different Internet-based video sources, such as ABC, CNN, Hulu, Joost, Netflix, Revision3, and YouTube. The seven current Internet-based music-streaming sources include the BBC, Last.FM, NPR, and ShoutCast. Boxee also has a strong social-networking aspect to it as well. Not only is the interface easy to navigate with a mouse and keyboard, but it is also designed to be navigated effortlessly with a remote control--as the Apple TV and all Macs come with remote controls, support for the Apple remote is built-into the boxee's Mac software. You can even set up boxee on a Linux client to work with a Wii remote. Boxee is ideal for what the industry calls the "10-foot user interface"--essentially interacting with boxee as you might interact with a TV.
And it is quite possibly, this very TV-like aspect of Boxee that has the content providers in a tizzy. Many folks are taking their systems running Boxee and connecting them to their TVs. With the right hardware and tweaks, Boxee can upconvert video to 720p, 1080i, and 1080p resolutions. By suddenly enabling all this additional, free, on-demand content from the Internet to play on TVs, means that other potential revenue streams for this content become less appealing to consumers--why pay for it, when you can get it for free?
The upshot of this is that Hulu has announced that "later this week, Hulu's content will no longer be available through Boxee." In a blog entry yesterday, Hulu's CEO, Jason Kilar, was very apologetic, but also explained the practicality of the situation:
"Our content providers requested that we turn off access to our content via the Boxee product, and we are respecting their wishes. While we stubbornly believe in this brave new world of media convergence -- bumps and all -- we are also steadfast in our belief that the best way to achieve our ambitious, never-ending mission of making media easier for users is to work hand in hand with content owners. Without their content, none of what Hulu does would be possible, including providing you content via Hulu.com and our many distribution partner websites."
Also yesterday, Boxee CEO, Avner Ronen, commented on this situation in a blog post:
"two weeks ago Hulu called and told us their content partners were asking them to remove Hulu from boxee. we tried (many times) to plead the case for keeping Hulu on boxee, but on Friday of this week, in good faith, we will be removing it."
Both Hulu and Boxee appear genuine in their mutual desires to keep Hulu on boxee, and they are both actively attempting to remedy the situation; however, they are ultimately at the mercy of the content providers. In the meantime, Hulu is still available on boxee, at least through the end of day today.
While this current situation only impacts a single application (and one that is still only in alpha), it could have far larger implications for how media is shared in the future between sites, applications, and platforms. Content providers want to keep as much control as possible over how their media is distributed, and they are very concerned with the prospect of piracy. DRM might be slowly dissolving for the music industry, but it is very much alive and kicking in the video realm. It appears that our future of all media available everywhere on all devices may not as inevitable as we thought, and it will most certainly at least come with strings attached.