Apple, Microsoft, Sony, and several other companies are betting that your computer — or some kind of Internet-connected device — will someday be at the centre of your living room. Despite some decent efforts, like Apple’s (AAPL) Apple TV, and multimedia features on gaming consoles like Microsoft’s (MSFT) Xbox 360, the concept hasn’t taken off yet.
A new software startup, Boxee, launching in alpha today, thinks it can do better. Boxee’s software, available for Macs and Linux now and eventually for Windows, works like the software on Apple TV: It offers an interface to browse the movies and music on computers in your home network, Flickr and Picasa photos, video RSS feeds, Last.fm, etc.
Three key differences: 1) Unlike Apple TV/Netflix’s (NFLX) set-top box, it’ll play a wider selection of DRM-free video you’ve snagged from non-iTunes/Netflix places. (This includes stuff that someone has “shared” with you.) 2) Unlike Apple TV or similar devices, it’s designed to be “social,” so you can see what your friends are watching and listening to, recommend stuff to each other, etc. This can plug into existing social networks, like Facebook or MySpace, and makes “content discovery and browsing very sexy,” founder Avner Ronen says. 3) Because Boxee is based on the excellent, open-source Xbox Media centre software, there’s a bunch of coders at work on new features, plugins, etc., which could get rolled in.
Will those features make a difference? Maybe. We don’t think Apple TV or Windows Media centre has hit the nail on the head yet, so we’re eager to see competition. And we like the idea of being able to play more video than stuff bought from iTunes, because — like music for the iPod — much of the video on peoples’ computers isn’t from iTunes. (Handbrake, a free app that lets you rip DVDs to your computer, is the top Mac download in the last two weeks, according to CNET’s VersionTracker.)
The problem with Boxee: Even if it’s good enough to “fundamentally change how we use the tv,” as VC Fred Wilson has said about it, it’s still just another piece of software for tech types who already have their TVs hooked up to their PCs. And unlike Wilson, most people probably aren’t going to shell out $600 on a Mac mini for their living room. So the challenge for Ronen will be figuring out what kind of hardware is going to connect the TV to the Internet for most mainstream people, and getting Boxee on there. (The cable box comes to mind. Or a cheap, bare-bones wi-fi gadget that hooks up to the TV, like a video version of Apple’s Airport Express. Or the next generation of TVs themselves.)
Boxee is based in New York and has raised a small round of seed funding. It has about 10 employees, including engineers in Israel. Founder Avner used to head up M&A for Comverse, which bought his IM startup, Odigo, in 2002.