Bye-bye Boxee: how a startup with great ideas and beautiful design failed to conquer the living room

23 Comments

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?

Cord Cutters: Boxee Live TV Thumbnail

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.

boxeebox-featured

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.

BoxeeTV-perspective

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.

Fan TV Touch Remote Set Top Box

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.

Image courtesy of Flickr user rafael_mizrahi.

23 Comments

Vag Johnson (tech guru)

You sure do know how to pick the winners. LOL!

Magnus

The post though well written is rather inaccurate in its reasons why boxee failed.

It wasn’t the price tag,the content providers or the hardware that caused it to fail.

Boxee/Avner forgot the first rule of this business which is that its the experience and not the spec that makes or breaks you.
They could have put out a product that wasn’t huge in its specs but one that worked really well and had great support.
This would have made buyers happy and developed their user base (word of mouth).

Instead Avner ran the company into the ground by not once abandoning its user base but twice.
The first being when they killed the desktop software and enraged the user base that got them to where they where.
The second was when the killed support for the boxee box after only a short life.

To make things worse they repeatably lied to the buyers and never delivered anything better then beta firmware on both devices they made.

The company had great promise but a leader who is little better then a used care salesmen.

This is why now android based devices are becoming so popular so fast.
Your not solely dependent on the company for support and can use many different OS on the devices.
Not to mention all the third party support that happens on the popular ones.

This removes the worries of software support or companies going poof.

Nettie

Consumers want control of available media content and continued support throughout the life cycle of the products they choose to play that content, like Sookbox. Wonder if any big companies are looking at them…?

Joe Pinkman

I have 42 episodes of House and 65 episodes of Psych on my Boxee that I have to watch in 4 days before it is wiped. I never understood how the Cloud DVR works. I am connecting with a 3G hotspot. It seems impossible that the Boxee could upload all those episodes over 3G and without showing up on my usage.

I would like a refund if I can no longer record.

Magnus

Boxee failed for one very important reason.

It was always about the experience and not the specs which is something boxee CEO never learned.
You don’t need the most cutting edge hardware as long as you give a fantastic user experience.
Boxee delivered beta firmware to its products at best and abandoned its user base twice over.
They repeatedly lied to owners of the product and just plain ignored them.

Avner and company did it for the money and in the end couldn’t care less about the people they burned.
Not everyone there is likely that bad but if you dont stand up for whats right it makes you just as guilty.

gonzo90017

In order to release any updates to the software they had to have a big event. Nuff said!

Guest

I dont know why some of us are seeing it as death of one innovator. Rather, it can be seen as a perfect partnership.

Its all about integration. If integration goes well, Imagine what Boxee and Samsung can do together. Samsung has excellent grip on HW and Design. They need some help on platform side and Boxee can provide that.

I only see better products in future.

Terrence Andrew Davis

I did scale back plans, but my vision was a souped-up commodore 64, not a 1970’s mainframe. If you think about it, paging-memory causes 5 memory accesses for each access. Privilege level changes cause delay and make things complicated.

I never wanted to be minimal like baremetal, something bigger, multitasking, 64-bit and cool. It is fabulously elegant and delightful.

Terrence Andrew Davis

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introduced phantasm diminish self-willed supereminent
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Which clasp runs 113 locking thirtieth Hear veiled marking
VI aught Prelate disappear sun stowed kingdom veil unlocked
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incoming in_theory Fiji improperly computer contacting
drank

The classical music buffoons want to be high IQ but are afraid to honestly answer good song from bad. All confused-in-the-head and made fools by arrogance. I have angel songs, one voice.

Yael Givon

Thanks for this fairwell analysis, I agree the team and the product deserve a propper goodbye. Hopefully there’ll be an opportunity to work with them within Samsung, there’s a lot to improve on the Smart TV, and Avner, Idan, Yuval and alk are right for the job, so here at Stevie we’re hoping its also a beginning, not just the end.

XBMCDEV

Boxee (as is Plex) is a forked version of XBMC which is still very much alive and well after 10 Years of development.

Paulo

My question is what’ll happen to those of us who own a Boxee device, will we be given a refund? Will we still be able to use our Boxee to watch TV programming the way we’ve done it up to this point?
Personally, I have more praise than criticism for Boxee. It eliminated a $50 cable bill and gave me few headaches in exchange. It also proved to some of us that we do have a choice when it comes to TV service and we do not have to be treated like crap by huge cable companies such as Time Warner.
Will we have a choice when it comes to watching tv if companies like Boxee are bought out? Antennas have not work for me and I hate to watch tv through my laptop. And by God I hate such ignorant, arrogant idiots from Time Warner Cable.

eideard

I have Apple TV and a Samsung Smart TV. Apple makes the Samsung look like it’s stuck with Perry Mason reruns in DOS and black-and-white.

I sometimes use the Samsung for Pandora because it’s one less device than using my DirecTV HR34. I use the Samsung to stream Amazon – only because it’s not available on Apple TV yet.

There is no comparison. Samsung is kludgy, clumsy, ignorant of user needs and desires in terms of operability.

Apple does everything I want it to do with as much content as they can offer. Better than anyone else. If I have to wait anywhere for more content it will be with that little black hockey puck.

Mcbeese

I was an optimistic earlier adopter, but there was never enough content to pull me away from ATV.

pierre

It’s very simple why Boxee failed. Have you tried the product? Did you not notice that Boxee restricted where you could go? Boxee had a built-in list of domains you couldn’t visit, no doubt to encourage you to settle for the domains with which it had licensing agreements. Read the fine print on the box and you will see.

I couldn’t access YouTube! I returned my unit to the store where I bought it, and made sure the manager understood what he was selling.

Boxee was a despicable concept, insidiously controlling where you could and could not go. I now use a $300 laptop to watch what I want, when I want, on my 42″ screen.

Paul Tan

We have Plex. Plex apps can already run on Samsung’s Smart TV app platform.

jim

I have to say that I was one of those vocal minority regarding the Boxee Box. A once proud supporter, I eventually became fed up with the device as each update seemed to make things worse and their blog contained more posts about BBQ-ing and road trips than issues and information regarding their product….you know, the reason we went to their blog.

Then the big middle finger when they abandoned the whole product all together.

Good luck, Samsung, with that ridiculous company. Plex and Roku is a much better pair anyway.

Adrian Bye

these will get done by little companies out of china. most of the components are commoditized. maybe one of them will figure out a non commodity aspect and become a billion dollar company.

John M. Smart

Excellent post Janko. I agree with all these points, and it’s great to see you signal what might come next. Samsung’s SmartTV is definitely positioning itself with excellent mindshare, and a big advertising spend at present. I expect several big initiatives from them in 2014 and beyond and think they are good long term stock hold.

I’m a tech futurist, and have written several articles and given a TEDx talk on the Future of Internet TV. You might a lot to agree with in my longer term (2020) vision for the field:
http://www.accelerating.org/articles/televisionwillberevolutionized.html

guest

The hardware part is not so interesting, (you can assemble a media PC for that cost)., but in terms of content available for streaming, I think http://www.hitbliss.com bears watching.

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