Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Boxee: WebTV That Makes Sense. Is That Good or Bad for Big Cable?

This year’s Consumer Electronic Show, like every year’s CES, was peppered with big talk about merging your PC and your TV, led by a new widget initiative from Yahoo (YHOO). And my reaction was the same one I have every year: Why?

No need to go on about my lack of interest in this forced marriage, which the consumer electronics business has been trying to make work for more than a decade (see the 1993 Time cover to the right). Slate’s Farhad Manjoo has done it for me. If you’re pressed for time, the title will do: “I don’t want my Web TV.”

Here’s what I do want: The ability to use my TV to watch all the great video the Web makes available–actual TV shows and movies like “The Office” on Hulu, “Lost” on, “No Country For Old Men” on Netflix’s (NFLX) on-demand service. Which is where Boxee comes in.

The New York-based start-up makes elegant software that cobbles together offerings from all of those services, plus many more–with whatever media you have stored on your hard drive–and serves it up to you on your big screen, with a minimum of fuss. Right now it’s a niche product–it only works on PCs running Linux, or Apple’s (AAPL) Mac mini and AppleTV boxes–but that should change soon.

It’s slick stuff, and when you get a chance to watch it in action, it’s the first time that all those anecdotal stories about people dropping their cable TV subscriptions and just watching Internet video finally make sense: Why pay for cable stations you don’t want when you can watch just about everything you do want, on demand, for free?

This is also why I’m not sure how long the big cable companies will allow Boxee to operate unfettered. As the recent dispute between Time Warner Cable (TWC) and Viacom (VIA) illustrates, the cable operators are increasingly dismayed about paying the cable networks big fees for their content, only to find them giving it away online. And with Boxee providing customers with a real opportunity to drop cable TV in favor of a broadband connection, I worry that it’s a matter of time before they find some way to throttle the company.

Technically, the cable guys (and the telcos, who are also in the TV business) aren’t supposed to be able to do anything about Boxee. They’re just supposed to act as a dumb pipe serving up high-speed Internet access and keep their mouths shut. In the real world, I don’t think that’s going to fly. See: The many bandwidth caps the cable guys are starting to experiment with, which are aimed at heavy Web video users.

Boxee founder Avner Ronen disagrees, of course. He thinks the cable guys will want to work with his company (he plans to make money by licensing his software to gadget makers and extracting fees from content providers like Netflix, but that’s all down the line). And maybe he’s right: When I dropped by his CES booth on Friday, he was being swarmed by emissaries from CableLabs, the cable guys’ tech consortium. They were the third group of cable execs to visit the company that day.

I’ll let Ronen make his case in the video below; and I’ve also included a brief demo video from the company. But that clip doesn’t really do Boxee justice. Ask one of the 100,000 super-early adopters who are using the software themselves. Or any of the nervous cable guys who saw it last week.

quick intro to boxee from boxee on Vimeo.

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work