Boxee has been around for years as an alternative to devices such as Roku and Apple TV. The set-top box lets you stream your favorite shows, movies, networks and services, and was introduced at a fairly low cost. The hardware was made by D-Link and last year it introduced the Boxee Cloud DVR. Samsung has swooped in this past week and purchased Boxee for a reported $30 million. What happens next with Boxee, and with Samsung, and with live OTA TV, is going to make for an interesting future for cloud DVR’s and streaming television.
Boxee has remained popular, but it's fair to say it never quite took off as well as did Apple TV and Roku. Even when it shifted its strategy. Initially Boxee was positioned as a way to stream services to your television, such as Netflix and Vudu. Until this past Fall, when the unit was rebranded as the Boxee TV and offered a significant shift in focus. Available as a Walmart exclusive for the price of $99, the Boxee TV had an important new feature, the Boxee Cloud DVR. For a $10 per month fee, you could “record” your shows to the cloud, limit-free, and access them whenever you wanted. The shows would not come from third-party services, but from an included antenna, and picked up over the air. Along the same concepts of Aereo, but in a much more legal way, Boxee wanted to revolutionize TV by offering hours of free HD content. It improved the box with updates such as DLNA streaming and various refinements, but unfortunately got tripped up on several levels as the months rolled on.
For Boxee fans, the biggest change was the discontinuing of previous-generation Boxee hardware. Those who stuck with the company for the long haul were dismayed that their hardware would not be advanced or supported. But Boxee was moving in a new direction. A very limited direction, because the other snag was that, although this new cloud-based DVR sounded great, it was only available in a small handful of cities. Boxee had planned to expand to a majority of the U.S., but things were moving slow. The issue was that the package in every Walmart in America advertised free TV, but many purchasers found that they’d have to wait to get the actual DVR service. Well they don’t have to wait any longer, because days after the Samsung acquisition, Boxee shut down its Cloud DVR, leaving its new customers as upset as the older fans.
Boxee is a passionate company very focused on the future of television, but this may have been a case of not having the resources or infrastructure to reinvent in a mass market way. It’s a small company in the scheme of things, and although it has made dramatic strides in features, it had always been a challenge to gain market share and awareness. Samsung entering the picture could either be the boost it needs, or the beginning of the end.
Samsung could head in a few different directions, but the current set-top box option may not be one of them. The fact that the cloud DVR function was immediately shut down, easily the most compelling feature, will render the current hardware on shelves mostly obsolete. Without the DVR, the box can pick up HD OTA signals, but would now function much more like a services-based smart TV. Which may be what Samsung is after. We could see Boxee move to inside of a Samsung TV, where the engine is used for services such as Netflix, and the antenna option returns with the cloud DVR. Although doing anything over the air will be a tough sell for consumers. Aereo has gained traction because it is being positioned as an alternate to cable television, one that comes in at a dramatically lower rate. Boxee was also positioned as an alternate, while also being touted as an accessory to your home entertainment system.
The catch was the very limited availability of the cloud DVR to a handful of cities; this selling point could have been the tipping point that got people to consider Boxee and cut their cable TV cord. Samsung has a challenge with how this new hardware will be positioned, but it may not even be positioned all all. Samsung could kill the hardware end, which it seems to be doing, and bring the team and the technology into its fold to produce the infrastructure to be included in TVs. Or perhaps reinvent the box into a Samsung-branded streaming TV box. Samsung has already gone after Apple’s smartphone and tablet market, so it could be acquiring leverage to tackle Apple’s (possibly) upcoming Apple-branded smart TV, or even just to compete against the current Apple TV streaming box. It could also be focusing on its own store, such as Apple’s iTunes, Amazon’s Kindle tablet suite of services or even Google Play, and video content via Samsung could be pushed out through the now acquired Boxee technology.
Samsung is holding the cards and has not made a public announcement or conveyed its plans on what happens next. A streaming box with a coaxial plug is certainly a strange item in 2013, but it could open up a new era in moving free HD local affiliates back into the living room as it bypasses the traditional cable box. Many companies are trying to unlock the hold cable and satellite have on programming and networks, and this could be a step in that direction.
Whatever happens next will be interesting to see, and it will probably happen fast. Unlike companies such as Amazon and especially Apple, who develop products for many months or years, working on their perfection, Samsung traditionally likes to fasttrack new hardware. So we could be seeing the phoenix-like rebirth of Boxee sooner than we may expect. And this round could be the round that the company does finally shake up the marketplace, something Boxee has been shooting for for years.