(reprinted from my blog at O'Reilly)
I keep waiting for the magical convergence box in my living room. You know the one; it’s the Web TV that actually works.
In Boxee (social media center), Apple TV (iTunes in my living room) and Square Connect (iPhone/iPod touch based Universal Remote), I finally see the framing for a Smart, Connected Living Room to emerge.
Never confuse 'Chicken Parts' with a living, breathing Chicken
First, a disclaimer. While Boxee, Apple TV and Square Connect are conceptually designed to work together, and while I am optimistic that the user experience will get better, today the gestalt is more ready-made for techies than less technically proficient types.
And to be clear, the user experience matters a heck of a lot here because, let’s face it, you only want to build and manage one media library.
For one thing, you need to gracefully support modal “tune-ability” and informational “volume controls” so that users can easily shift from lean forward (social and interactive) to lean back (passive-viewing) mode.
From a usability and workflow perspective, this implies that I can make a few wizard-type of customization decisions and combine Broadcast channels with Internet Media and my Personal Libraries (photo, music and video libraries) in a few clicks.
Structurally, it means unified media access, archival and playback mechanisms; namely one player engine that is skin-able and customizable via well labeled “knobs and levers” that are template-driven where practical.
Fundamentally, this is Programmable Media. I can channel-ize it into segmented content containers, rate it, review it, enrich it (via Service Overlays) and give it the dewey decimal categorization treatment.
By Service Overlays, I mean that there is a messaging layer that runs coincident, but out-of-band, to my media. Messaging data can be simple URL links, information feeds, data repositories, email messages, tweets or service specific events, such as who else is watching this content Right Now.
Imagine a message that is able to contain a “payload,” and that payload can be information, media or conversations/discussion threads.
Moreover, the envelope that this message is stored within exposes a set of contextual “handles” so that decisions such as ignore, archive or elevate can be proactively handled for you based on simple rules.
Built on top of this model is social interactivity. With pretty much no effort, I can broadly see What’s New, Popular, Talked About, Related and Right Now filtered by friends, local distinctions, special interests and/or on a network-wide basis.
I can then plug in to it (e.g., watch video, join a conversation),
grab it, tune it, re-tweet it or just give a shout out - all without
leaving the couch.
Where the Rubber meets the Road
At this moment, the Social Media Center’s potential and reality are not quite one and the same. Much of this is functionality is in the composite wish list bucket versus being robust, well integrated and fine tuned.
As such, I am left to hearken back to a quote from Federico Faggin, whose critical contributions at Intel led to the game-changer that was/is the microprocessor.
Faggin once spoke to the ‘inevitability’ of certain innovations, noting that, “Because these inventions have a certain inevitability about them, the real contribution lies in making the idea actually work.”
So how does this apply to the Social Media Center? While I believe that the advent of the Social Media Center as a mainstream extension to the living room is inevitable, If done wrong, or poorly integrated, the experience becomes a bit like the Radio Shack 100-in-1; novel, but not compelling and certainly not engaging.
After all, the typical consumer (and even most early adopters) is not willing to perform unnatural acts to improve the way they experience media. This stuff just has to work (and work together).
Someday soon. Until then, what follows are thoughts on each vendor's offering.
Fred Wilson (the VC who backed Twitter) has a good explanation for why he chose to invest in Boxee, but suffice it to say, they are not lacking for ambition.
In addition, give them props, as they appear to be natural communicators and good listeners, which suggests both a rapid product improvement path and solid entrepreneurial muscles.
Plus, Boxee is designed to run on top of a Mac Mini or Apple TV, which suggests market awareness and industry realism (i.e., they are pragmatically picking their battles, and which wheels need re-invention).
And Fred Wilson is a smart guy, so from where I sit, that is an important vote of confidence.
At the same time, the system is decidedly at the Alpha stage (as it is labeled, to be clear). Case in point, it wrecks utter havoc on my MacBook Pro. Probably not the optimal system for running a media center application, but truth be told, for a lot of us, that will be the first staging ground for Boxee before moving on to a dedicated box.
The user experience is a bit cluttered for my taste but it’s easy to see where tons of user and usage data will accumulate via this model, and there are all sorts of interesting ways that that data can be sliced up and presented to users to catalyze new discoveries.
In fact, this data-centricity is a great way of maximizing stumble upon factors without requiring a user to have lots of friends using the system, avoiding a potential chicken-and-egg that a lot of social powered solutions face.
Under the hood, a preset could express a default set of network-wide views until you have at least N number of friends or Y amount of programming history.
On the data visualization front, this screams out for there being a natural use of "leader boards" and tickers of all kinds (i.e., information feeds - tweets, quotes, scores) as a way of spotlighting Local, Right Now, and Related information flows pertaining to available media options. This again increases stumble upon and enhances the information richness of the media services themselves.
One simple example is to enable within the system a “short post” extension to media items so that Boxee users can extend programming notes with comments, ratings, tags and links to related resources, as well as share them if they desire.
Over time, the meta-information surrounding the media becomes as valuable as the media itself.
Logically, Boxee might consider building a Facebook or Flash-based user badge that can be embedded in blogs etc, to showcase a user’s last N number of programs watched on Boxee, Favorites, Recommended content, etc.
Ala DirecTV’s great DVR Scheduler feature that allows you to schedule programs to record from your mobile or PC/Mac, Boxee should seriously consider enabling users to open up a portion of their playlist to friends: A) so they can share programming WITH you; and B) so they can grab programming FROM you.
Plus, it’s not too hard to imagine where such a model might serve for enabling synchronized “social” viewing activities with live/broadcast media, such as sports related content.
All in all, Boxee has a lot of promise, but also, a lot of work ahead to realize the hard part of making their many ideas actually work, caveat-free.
On the one hand, Apple seems to have settled on Video Rental Store and iTunes in your living room as the primary “jobs” that Apple TV is designed for.
And in the most recent earnings call, Apple CEO Steve Jobs asserted pretty firmly (in response to an analyst question on the topic) that Apple TV would remain just a hobby of Apple’s versus a strategic and material revenue-producing cornerstone business for the company.
This raises serious questions about Apple’s commitment to drive innovation in the platform during the year ahead, especially since they did only limited enhancements over the course of this year.
That said, Jobs has thrown many a head fake before so I would take his assertions with a grain of salt.
My skepticism frankly is fueled by the fact that Apple has built up a thriving ecosystem around its iPhone and iPod touch platforms, and the premise of scaling that ecosystem to include the Apple TV sandbox just makes sense.
Along these lines, part of me wonders if there is any path for Apple to embrace Boxee and fold their efforts (either via business deal or outright acquisition) into a formal platform play on Apple TV and Mac Mini.
This would give their developer base an opportunity to choose to develop for any combination of iPhone/iPod touch, Mac and Apple TV.
This assumes a long-term convergence of iPhone and Apple TV code bases, defining explicitly supported workflow models, extending developer tools and adding App Store integration, but it would allow Apple to leverage the same set of relationships over and over, and leverage is generally a good thing.
It’s a great way to accelerate their hobby into the next gear, IMHO.
So where does Square Connect sit in this equation? Square Connect’s vision is to leverage the iPhone and iPod touch as a Universal Remote, not just for controlling your iTunes library on your Mac or Apple TV (as Apple’s Remote application does), but for all of your living room and media center peripherals as well.
As the iPhone/iPod touch does not have infrared controls built into it, the way Square Conntect’s DOTCONTROL solution works is by placing a Wi-Fi powered hardware gateway that converts between the iPhone/iPod touch’s Wi-Fi interfaces on the one hand, and the infrared interfaces of peripherals on the other.
One bit of goodness around such a model is that your iPhone is now programming aware (thanks to the gateway), meaning it knows when you are watching the Laker’s game on TNT and when you switch over to ‘Dancing with the Stars.’
This opens up the door to your universal remote being able to automatically serve up to your iPhone live feeds, scores and other social functions (e.g., who is watching now) when you are watching the Lakers, and audience scores and dance impressions when you are watching DWTS.
The Social Media Center. It’s coming to a living room near you. Just in time for cocooning season. ☺