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Boxee Embraces HTML5, Switches to Webkit

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Boxee is going to switch its integrated web browser from Mozilla’s Gecko to Webkit with its next major update, I was told by Boxee Lead Apps Developer and Community Evangelist Rob Spectre. The switch is an attempt to make full use of HTML5 within Boxee, but it should also help with accessing a wider array of video content that’s not yet available through dedicated Boxee apps.

Since its first release, Boxee has offered a web browser through its “Boxee Browser” application that enables users to navigate to any site on the web. However, the implementation has been little more than a stop-gap measure to offer access to sites like, which briefly blocked the ability to access its videos directly through Boxee in early 2009. The current browser is based on Mozilla’s Gecko layout engine, which is also used by Firefox. Its implementation is fairly buggy, and many sites don’t display correctly within Boxee.

The new browser will be based on Webkit, which is the browser engine used by Apple’s (s AAPL) Safari browser and Google (s GOOG) Chrome. “The web browsing experience is going to be dramatically improved,” Spectre said during a phone conversation. The main motivator for the switch was to make Boxee’s browser HTML5-compliant. Spectre said that HTML5 has proven to be the future of web browsing on desktop PCs and mobile handsets, and adding it to a living-room centered platform like Boxee was the logical next step. “It absolutely should be the future for the browsers you use on your TV,” he said.

The company’s highly anticipated Boxee Box will come with an integrated Webkit browser when it ships in November. Boxee’s desktop client will also offer Webkit-based browsing with its 1.0 release, which will be available “shortly thereafter,” according to Boxee VP of Marketing Andrew Kippen.

Boxee’s embrace of HTML5 should also help the company to compete with Google TV devices from Sony (s SNE) and Logitech, (s LOGI) which are slated to launch this fall. Google has been putting a lot of emphasis on bringing a full web browsing experience into the living room.

In fact, Google has been advising web developers on how to prepare sites and apps for its TV platform, and Google TV’s universal search will present web search results right next to local and cable TV content. Google TV is based on Android, which also uses Webkit as its default browser.

Related content on GigaOM Pro: What Does the Future Hold For Browsers? (subscription required)

36 Responses to “Boxee Embraces HTML5, Switches to Webkit”

  1. The thing to remember is that NewTeeVee covers Boxee in only the most glowing of tones, even when the announcement makes no sense, as other commenters have clearly documented. When Boxee announced a major delay in delivering their Boxee Box, it was radio silence on NewTeeVee. They are so blatantly preferential to Boxee that it leads one to wonder if somebody’s related to somebody. NewTeeVee and GigaOM don’t cover any other vendors with similar solutions except for Boxee. Except, of course, for the fact that they can’t justify ignoring Google and Apple. Unbiased reporting? Not here. NewTeeVee is the place to go if you want to catch up on Boxee’s marketing messages. That’s all.

  2. The comment that Boxee are switching because of website compatibility is laughable, Firefox has a much better compatibility level with websites than any Webkit browser.

    The real answer I suspect is that as the Boxee Box runs Arm not x86, Boxee dont want to have to spend resources developing an Arm based Gecko browser when webkit exists and all they have to do is tailor it to their player.

    Their is Firefox Mobile of course but it’s not ready for prime time yet I imagine.

  3. Asa Dotzler

    Shelly, Firefox tip and Chrome tip lead all the other browsers and score virtually the same at (acknowledging that it tests plenty of not-HTML 5 stuff and doesn’t fully test HTML5) and when you get into the quality of the implementations, I think Firefox’s support for some key HTML5 elements like the video tag and multimedia APIs, is considerably more solid than what you get from Chrome.

    Now, Chrome isn’t Webkit (and neither is Safari) and I suspect that Boxee is taking more than just Webkit/WebCore — they’ll likely grab a much larger chunk, probably of Chrome, because who in their right mind (except other real browser vendors) wants to implement the rest on their own. (Do the boxee guys really want to write their own 2D graphics subsystems for drawing images, text and geometries? Do they really want to write their own JavaScript engine? Their own Networking and crypto stacks? Their own storage systems? and then their own browser on top of all of that? and then to do it 4 times — once for each of their desktop versions and once for the embedded system in the box? I don’t thikn so.)

    My guess is that this isn’t even simply about the video codecs. It wouldn’t be terribly difficult to add h.264+AAC in MP4 to a Gecko browser if that’s all that you’re missing, and even if you do take Google or Apple code, you don’t get a free patent license for those codecs and containers with the code.

    My guess is that Boxee is using an ancient version of Gecko and because upgrading to a new Gecko won’t be a trivial task, that they’ve decided to go with looks to them to be a somewhat easier to embed solution. We’ll see how that turns out for them.

    All of that aside, this article gives the impression that “Gecko doesn’t support HTML5 so Boxee had to move to Webkit which does support HTML5.” That is a wrong impression and it should be corrected.

    • Asa, Chrome is based on WebKit. And all of the modern browsers support the video element, though each company supports different codecs.

      Firefox does not support H.264 because it is a proprietary codec. As for the elements themselves, Firefox, Safari, and Chrome are pretty comparable. Where they differ is in codec support.

      And if Boxee is based on an ancient version of Gecko, the company is going to have just as much work–or more–than upgrading to Chrome.

      I can agree that the article does generate a misunderstanding about the actual reasons why Boxee went with HTML5. Is there anything directly from Boxee somewhere that has more detail?

      • Asa Dotzler

        Shelly, Chrome is not based on Webkit, not all of it, anyway. Apple’s Webkit is an embedding API that wraps WebCore and JavaScriptCore. Google discards JavaScriptCore and the Webkit embedding API and replaces them with it’s own V8 JavaScript engine and all the API bits the Chrome team keeps in /glue. So, technically, Chrome uses WebCore, not Webkit, and there’s a whole lot more to a browser than Webcore.

      • Almost forgot.

        Codecs are not the only difference in the modern browsers’ support for the HTML5 video element. Support for its DOM API and all of its attributes actually varies quite a bit between browsers.

        Firefox has the largest and least buggy HTML5 multimedia feature set of any browser. And that’s not unreasonable, considering we were way ahead of all the other browsers in shipping it and have had more time to fine tune it and fill out the feature set.

    • Asa, point taken on clarification of “based on WebKit”. However, according to the article, Boxee is replacing its Gecko “browser engine” with the WebKit “browser engine”, so the point is mute on Chrome, Firefox, Safari, et al, because that’s not what Boxee is using.

      Wikipedia has a page on what each layout engine supports of HTML5 at, and a page on the media support at

      Seems to be relatively up to date. It is true that Gecko has barely begun to scratch the surface of the new form input types, but it has made progress in other aspects of HTML5. As for media, Gecko’s and WebKit’s support does differ, especially in regards to looping, but hard to say if the areas where the two differ is the reason for the change. I can’t imagine form support is the reason.

      Since the article doesn’t provide specifics, we don’t know in which area Gecko is supposedly falling short. I took a guess at video codec, as this made the most sense. It would have been nice to have more detailed information other than “changing because we want HTML5”, which is a pretty useless statement.

    • Looks like one of my comments hit the filter…

      Asa, your point on Chrome and WebKit is good.

      All we know from article is that Boxee is switching out Gecko for WebKit, but we don’t know why. We’re told because Boxee wants to be HTML5, which we all agree is a ludicrous reason–both Gecko and WebKit support HTML5.

      There are differences in media support. For one, did the looping issue get fixed in Gecko? Perhaps it is these differences that account for the choice. Or not. Or it could be because of existing video codec support.

      I wish we had more details. All we do is guess.

  4. Actually, Daniel, as fond as I am of Firefox, it doesn’t support more HTML5 than WebKit. Neither browser can crow too loudly about HTML5 support.

    Webkit does support H.264 codec (think MP4), which is probably the reason Boxee made this change. Firefox does not support this codec because of it being a proprietary codec.

    This has nothing to do with HTML5, and everything to do with video codecs.

    I really wish people who covered HTML5 stories wouldn’t generalize the term so much.

    • Exactly. They want to be able to take advantage of all the iPad/iPhone compatible video popping up all over the Web.

      Mozilla has their head in the sand, and it’s going to cost them in the end.

    • Webkit doesn’t support the H.264 codec, Apple includes the codec with QuickTime, which Safari uses to render video. Which is why Safari for Windows doesn’t read HTML5 video without installing QuickTime.

      Meanwhile Chrome includes the H.264 codec and Theora codec as well. If Boxee really wanted to they could have included the H.264 codec with the Gecko browser. Or on the flip side they could be using WebKit without the H.264 codec, which does require licensing fees to include (Apple, Google, Adobe with Flash all pay into these licensing fees to include the H.264 codec).

      • Again, I just took a guess at the reason why. Your points are good. Without additional information than is included in this article, we have no way of knowing exactly why Boxee switched from Gecko to WebKit, other than we do know that adding HTML5 support isn’t it.

  5. This is pretty hilarious when you consider the fact Firefox supports more of the HTML5 spec than Webkit. Do these folks research the core points behind their decisions before they make them?