One of the big “aha moments” for me in the past couple years came when I hooked up a Mac Mini to a large display in our family room in the spring of 2007. Slowly but surely, our family started using the Mac Mini instead of the cable set-top box and the DVD player. My son watches YouTube videos on the Mac Mini, my daughter downloads tv shows and movies from iTunes and watches them on the Mac Mini. The Gotham Gal and I watch SNL on sunday morning on Hulu (that’s Tina Fey on SNL being delivered into our family room via Hulu in the picture on the right). We also listen to music on iTunes and via streaming services like last.fm, Hype Machine, and, of course, fredwilson.fm on the Mac Mini. And when we are not actively engaged with it, the Mac Mini goes into screen saver mode and runs family photos that are sitting on a file server in our basement.
Not only are we watching less cable, we are watching less DVDs. We can get full length movies via Netflix, Hulu, and bittorrent on the Mac Mini. Many think that streaming video is not ready for “prime time” on a big screen in a family room but I can tell you definitively that is not true. We usually opt for streaming over file-based video due to the convenience, and the quality is fine.
All of this happens because the Mac Mini has a great HDMI interface, because it’s small, compact, and doesn’t make noise, and because the browser is increasingly becoming the interface to high quality audio and video services.
But there are some issues with using a Mac Mini in this way. First, the Mac Mini’s Front Row interface isn’t so great. We end up using the browser for most of our activities on the Mac Mini. And you need a wireless keyboard to interact with the web browser. That’s OK, but not ideal for a family room/living room experience. And the browser interface doesn’t have a simple integration point for all of the various video services we use.
We could use an Apple TV or a Media Center PC instead of an Mac Mini. But both Apple TV and Media Center are closed services, and you can’t get to every piece of content you want to access with them. The open environment of a personal computer and a broswer is superior to both. I’ve always thought there was room for the “Firefox of media center software.” The best candidate to be the Mozilla of this analogy is the powerful open-source XBMC project that has gathered quite a following among geeks since it started in 2002. So when I heard about a company called Boxee that was developing a commercial version of XBMC, I got excited.
I first met the founders of Boxee over a year ago. At the time they were considering building a hardware device to run the XBMC/Boxee software. I really liked what they were doing, but the idea of investing in hardware for the family room/living room scared me. I gave them a bunch of feedback and wished them well. Like most entrepreneurs, they didn’t take no for an answer. And I’ve met with them on and off ever since. The big moment came this spring when I got boxee running on our Mac Mini on our family room. For the first time, we had a single interface built for a family room remote into all of our video, music, and photo libraries and web services. My daughter saw it and said “genius.” That’s a big compliment coming from her. But even so, I wasn’t sold. Just because our family liked it doesn’t mean there’s a market for it. So I told Avner no once more.
In late September, Avner emailed me and told me that over 10,000 people had downloaded boxee for the Mac already and that someone in the open source community had built an Apple TV version. That was the market validation we were looking for. So we decided to get involved. Today Boxee is announcing that it has raised its first venture capital round co-led by Union Square Ventures and Spark Capital. I will be joining Boxee’s board and will be joined by my good friend Bijan Sabet, a veteran of the “web TV” sector who spent time at both Web TV and Moxi Digital.
I believe Boxee will be the “Firefox of media center software”. It’s simple to download and install, it’s available on Mac, Linux, and Apple TV. It will soon be available on Windows. And over 100,000 users have signed up to use it, and over 50,000 people are now registered users. And that’s for a service that’s still in a closed alpha. All you have to do is look at the Twitter talk about boxee to see how excited and engaged the user base is. If you’d like to give it a try, signup here. I’ll end with a video showing what I’m talking about. I hope you join me on Boxee soon. Please let me know if you’d like an invite and I’ll send you one. I’ll need your email address to do so.