Come November, you’ll be able to pick up a dedicated Boxee Box for all your streaming media needs for a pleasantly reasonable $299. To celebrate its impending launch, over the next week, we’re going to retrace the origins of Boxee, how it ended up on the Boxee Box and look at what the future might hold for media centres generally. But we have to start at the beginning, and in the beginning was some open source code and a somewhat different kind of box.
What people want from a media centre has not really changed since we first started thinking about them: something that can sit in your living room and offer you access to all the media that can be found on your PC and the wider Internet, but without looking ugly or making too much noise or clashing with your carefully planned decor choices. So it’s not surprising that some enterprising geek types figured that it would be a good idea to write some media centre software to run on the Xbox, which back in 2004 was the device most likely to be in your lounge room that already have a hard drive attached. Thus was born XBMC (Xbox Media Center, complete with the inevitable US spelling).
XBMC itself evolved from Xbox Media Player, an earlier project designed to ensure that the Xbox could play a wider range of media than Microsoft itself seemed inclined to bother with. However, it offered a much broader range of features than just simple playback, and version 2.0 of the software, which appeared in 2006, was appealing enough to make people consider buying an Xbox even if they didn’t plan on playing any games.
Developing open source software for the Xbox was quite a brave choice. Microsoft tightly controls distribution of software for its gaming platform via its development tools, and doesn’t let just anyone push out executable code to run on it. The official means of accessing XBMC was by downloading source code and then compiling it yourself – a fiddly process that not everyone wanted to follow. In practice, you’ve always been able to download executable versions, but this was technically illegal and officially discouraged.
Either way, that didn’t stop XBMC becoming widely popular as a media centre software choice, while its open source nature meant both that it could readily adapt to new media formats and – more temptingly – be ported onto other platforms. And that’s where we’ll pick up the story on Monday.