It may still be difficult to wander into a local electronics retailer and
come away with a desktop system running Linux. But there is likely no
shortage of Linux-based devices on sale in that store; one needs only
wander past the Linux-based phones and cameras to the shelf where the
networked video players live. Linux dominates on such devices, but, as the recent
history of the Boxee Box shows, "Linux inside" does not necessarily mean
"free" or that the device has a future.
The Boxee Box is based on the Boxee software which, in turn, is based on
the XBMC media player. It gained an
enthusiastic early following as the result of its open-source roots and the
device's plugin infrastructure. The Boxee Box handled a wide variety of media
types from the outset; in places where it fell short, others could easily
provide plugins to fill in the gaps. So the Boxee Box became known as a
device that could play almost anything.
Boxee Box users lost some of their enthusiasm over time. Early versions
could be "unboxed"
and made to run arbitrary software, but the company closed that hole in
2010 and it does not appear that anybody has figured out how to break newer
versions. Bug fixes and improvements from Boxee slowed down over time,
leading to user frustration. And now those users, the people who have
supported Boxee to this point, have been informed
that Boxee is abandoning the device in favor of its upcoming, USA-only
"Boxee TV" product.
One can maybe understand a company that feels the need to declare
end-of-life for a two-year-old consumer electronics product; such offerings
often don't last anywhere near that long. But Boxee has not just left a product
behind; it also left the entire community that had embraced that product.
The new "Boxee TV" is a clear step backward in a number of regards: no
plugin support, no support for arbitrary file formats, and a highly
proprietary architecture throughout. It now features a new deal with
US cable provider Comcast (ensuring that Boxee will not be blocked by the
just-allowed encryption of basic cable content in the US) and features
designed to warm the entertainment
industry's heart. This
article in The Verge describes the situation clearly:
Boxee’s gone from hated pirate outsider to shaper of telecom
policy, and it’s done it by extending an olive branch to the
largest and most entrenched interests in the business. XBMC and
open source are gone now, replaced by a proprietary OS that’s built
to support end-to-end content encryption and a policy compromise
[Boxee CEO Avner Ronen] describes as “very reasonable.” And Boxee’s
deemphasized its famously comprehensive support for weird video
files as well — weird video files that generally come from torrent
What has happened here is clear: Boxee has gone from trying to make its
customers happy to making the entertainment industry happy instead. If
that meant dumping its old customers and the development community that had
built itself around the older product, then so be it. As XBMC developer
Nathan Betzen put
it, Boxee has moved from trying to expand its users' rights under
copyright law to actively restricting those rights. In a sense, Boxee is
telling us that we cannot have a box with plugin support and the ability to
play "weird video files" — much less a truly open system — under the
current copyright regime.
Boxee has also driven home a lesson we've heard many times before: just
putting free software onto a device does not make the device free. Most of
what is in the Boxee Box is freely licensed, but, without the ability to
replace the software, the Boxee Box itself is not under its owner's
control. It can have features taken away, contain evil software, or be
turned into an obsolete, unsupported paperweight at a corporation's whim.
Purchasing such a device may or may not be a rational decision, depending
on what the purchaser's goals are. Developing for this kind of device
seems like a mistake; one is working to improve an edifice whose foundation
can be yanked out at any time.
Suitably skilled users who are aware of these issues will, of course, have
avoided a device like the Boxee Box from the outset. It is certainly
possible to put XBMC onto a properly equipped computer and have a truly
free device to feed one's video consumption habits. That option has not gone
away, but the world has still gotten a little worse; from Nathan's
Most frustrating of all is the fact that, as an XBMC team member
facing yet another rush of ex-Boxee users, I should be very pleased
with this decision, but honestly, I’m not. Boxee, Plex, and XBMC
have all been pushing each other to advance over the past four
years. The competition for eyeballs has led to some incredible
software (and a few stinging words). With Boxee’s decision to go
down the Boxee TV road, I’m afraid the world will be left with one
less competitor dedicated to true innovation for the sake of the
Without an off-the-shelf open system, most viewers are going to be stuck
with whatever the entertainment industry is willing to let them to have.
Those who want something more flexible will need to build their own
systems, run into all kinds of issues trying to access content that is
rightfully available to them, and live under the assumption that their
primary motivation is piracy.
Version 3 of the GPL will not save us here; manufacturers have shown every
sign of being willing to dump software when its licensing gets in the way
of their business objectives. Boxee went from being "passionate
about open source software" to embracing a fully proprietary solution
even without the extra requirements found in GPLv3 to worry about.
Solutions to this problem, if they exist, will have to come from elsewhere.
What is needed is a combination of truly
free alternatives, a willingness among buyers to insist on free devices,
and copyright reform. In the handset market, buyers have begun to
understand how nice it is to have alternatives like CyanogenMod — and to
not have to go through a scary "jailbreaking" process to install it. As
the content industry tries to tighten its grip on what our systems can do,
awareness of the value of freedom may grow in this market as well. But it
will be too late for Boxee Box owners who are now discovering that they
lack the freedom to improve a device after its manufacturer has lost
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