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Boxee snags Major League Baseball

June 23, 2009 |  9:02 pm
Boxee Software start-up Boxee has gained attention as much for its contretemps with Hulu as for its well-received platform for watching online video programs on a television set. This evening, though, the company made news for all the right reasons. It announced a deal with Major League Baseball to integrate the league's online game broadcasts into its software, giving Boxee users an easy, elegant way to tune in online games from distant ballparks on their living-room TVs.

The deal lends some legitimacy to Boxee, which has a ton of buzz but a limited number of users and no evident business model. The announcement coincides with the first public release of Boxee software for Windows PCs, which should help the company reach its goal of 1 million users by the end of the year. Boxee has attracted half that number so far, Chief Executive Avner Ronen said, almost all of whom use Mac or Linux computers or Apple TV set-top boxes.
 
Its software aggregates online video sites and brings them under a common user interface, enabling people to navigate their offerings with an ordinary TV remote control instead of a keyboard and mouse. It uses the social capabilities of the Net to help users find videos they might like to watch. And it provides a foundation for third-party applications that bring entertainment, information and tools from the Web to the TV.

There's plenty of competition for Boxee on all those fronts -- lots of websites are aggregating video and implementing social tools, and there's no shortage of companies developing software platforms that enable TV screens to harness the power of the Net. The latter include TV set-makers, cable operators, Microsoft, Apple and a smattering of well-established software developers for set-top boxes. To set itself apart, Boxee has opened its platform to independent developers; it now offers over 100 applications, including streamed courses and lectures from Open University in the U.K.; a mash-up of Twitter and YouTube that helps users retrieve videos that correspond to hot topics; and a large-screen version of We Are Hunted, a music site that tracks the bands generating the most discussion on social networks. 

For MLB.tv's subscriber-only service, Ronen said, Boxee customized the site's player to eliminate a number of user-interface features that relied on the keyboard-mouse combo. It also integrated the technology from Swarmcast that adjusts the picture quality of the broadcasts to match the viewer's Internet connection. Most important, he said, the company worked with the MLB.tv to optimize its look for the "10-foot experience" -- in other words, the view from the couch, not the desk. "I think it's a work in progress," Ronen added, with many features still to come.

In addition to baseball, the company has also integrated feeds from CBS, CNN, Comedy Central and Netflix, among others. These represent some of the most aggressive players within the industry when it comes to online distribution, and as such constitute the low-hanging fruit. The tougher sell for Boxee will be the cable networks that derive much of their income from cable and satellite subscriber fees.
 
"There is a real business challenge for them," Ronen said, referring to the TV industry. Yet despite the blow-up with Hulu (which Boxee seems to have circumvented; one of the virtual channels on Boxee is "Hulu feeds," a collection of streams from Hulu), Ronen said, the company has a "very healthy relationships" with media companies. "They see where the future is headed," as well as how poorly the music and newspaper industries managed the transition to digital. "They don't want to make the same mistakes where they can avoid them."

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

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