As a tech blogger, there are always a handful of companies that you cover compulsively. For me, Boxee was one of those companies. So when news of the company’s sale to Samsung broke, I couldn’t help but wonder: What does this mean for innovation in the space of internet-connected TVs? And who is going to fill the gap, now that Boxee is history?
Boxee and me
From the beginning I was drawn to Boxee. As a user, I’ve always had a thing for their products, in the same way others fall in love with Apple hardware. And as a blogger, I pretty much stalked the company. I pre-ordered the first Boxee Box back in 2010, and wrote about the reasons for doing so. I wrote the scoop about Boxee’s live TV dongle, and bought it as soon as it became available. And I ventured down to my local Walmart (s WMT) and begged a salesperson to give me one of the company’s second-generation Boxee TV devices a day before it officially went on sale.
What I admired about Boxee was a screen design that was far ahead of the cluttered and clunky UIs of many of its competitors, and an instinct for innovative features that would make for a unique approach to bringing internet video to the TV, be it the two-sided remote control of the Boxee Box, or the cloud DVR of its predecessor.
But as a reporter covering this space, I also realized that Boxee struggled to come to realities with a business that resists change, and that it failed to gain traction beyond a key audience that included people like me. That’s why I’m now coming to terms with the fact that Boxee will likely cease to exist as a separate brand, that the team will move on to work on Samsung products and that its cloud DVR service will be discontinued soon, as the company announced Thursday on its website.
The little company that could have, should have.
There were many things to like about the original Boxee Box. I already mentioned the UI and the sleek, double-sided remote control. But there was also the social integration, which was far ahead of its competition, the open approach of allowing third-party apps, and the eclectic picks of featured videos on its home screen that more than once made my day.
But there were also many things that just didn’t work. And I’m not just talking about minor bugs here, of which the device had its fair share as well. The biggest show stopper was simply the Intel (s INTC) architecture, and the price tag that came with it. Boxee and its hardware partner Dlink used the same Intel chip set that already doomed the first generation of Google (s GOOG) TVs, which resulted in a retail price of first $230, and later around $180. Too much to compete with a Roku or an Apple (s AAPL) TV, and too much to reach a mainstream audience.
Then there was Boxee’s not always smooth relationship with content owners. In its previous life as a software-only company, Boxee had its share of altercations with Hulu, and the Boxee Box subsequently never got a Hulu app. Some TV networks also blocked the device from accessing their videos on their website, which didn’t exactly help to make more content available on the device.
Making hardware is hard. Making a platform is even harder.
In a way, Boxee struggled with the very same things that many hardware startups have to deal with, one of them being that you have to move boxes. You can’t just get people to try your product for free, and instead have to convince people to make a leap of faith with their wallets.
And then there were Boxee’s more typical startup struggles. Startups by nature change course, and are often forced to reinvent themselves, abandon old products and start over with new ones. But that kind of course correction is that much harder when people have invested real money and actual shelf space in their living rooms into your products. Boxee always struggled with criticism of users who loudly complained about the latest UI tweaks, bugs or new products. These users may have been a vocal minority, but they didn’t exactly make these course corrections easier.
The irony of all of this is that Boxee didn’t actually want to be a hardware company. Instead, it wanted to build a platform, and leave the hardware building to others. But plans for a multitude of devices never materialized, and partners like Viewsonic and Iomega either completely abandoned, or significantly scaled down, their plans for Boxee devices.
What’s next, and who will build it?
So who is Boxee going to pass the torch to now? Who will become the next little company to take on the living room and capture everyone’s imagination? Fanhattan made a bold move with its new Fan TV device, but the company’s reliance on slow-moving pay TV operators makes me doubt its prospects. Plex has become the darling of many people who have abandoned Boxee over the years, but it might find itself struggling with some of the very same issues as Boxee as it is looking to scale beyond early adopters.
Maybe we will instead see innovation coming from new entrants, like the mysterious Black Pearl Systems. Or maybe the lesson of Boxee is that in the living room, big leaps can only be survived by big companies. Companies like Apple, Amazon (s AMZN) and yes, Samsung. We don’t know yet what team Boxee will be working on for the Korean consumer electronics giant, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see something interesting and innovative come out of Samsung’s newest New York outpost.