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Boxee, Hulu Desktop bridge the gap between the Web, TV

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, January 31, 2010; G02

Last weekend, I caught up on a few TV shows I'd missed, but the experience wasn't a rerun of my usual viewing routines.

Although I watched these programs on the high-definition set in the living room, no digital video recorder or cable on-demand service brought them there.

Instead, I turned to the Web -- but using an Internet connection as a TV antenna didn't mean I had to tap a keyboard to summon my choice of content.

I just had to install two free programs on a computer, Boxee (http://boxee.tv) and Hulu Desktop (http://hulu.com/desktop), that bridge the gap between the Web and the biggest screen at home.

Connect a PC or Mac to a TV, set it up with a wireless remote or mouse, and each program's full-screen, large-type interfaces let you click away from the couch.

The concept isn't too different from Apple's Front Row and Microsoft's Media Center. But where those older programs mainly present your computer's music, photos and videos, Boxee and Hulu emphasize Web video.

Boxee -- available for Windows, Mac OS X and Ubuntu Linux, with Apple TV support farther behind-- is the more ambitious, more useful and less refined option.

It connects to a wide variety of video sources, such as YouTube, Netflix, individual network and channel sites, and MLB.tv. Boxee also tunes into Web radio, displays photos at online galleries such as Yahoo's Flickr and plays your media files.

And at times, Boxee even connects to Hulu -- when that popular TV portal hasn't shut it out.

Not long after early releases of Boxee added a Hulu widget, Hulu asked Boxee to remove access to Hulu, then began blocking Boxee's software.

But why bother when Boxee, headquartered in New York, shows the same ads as Hulu's site? New York-based Hulu's management has said nothing beyond an apologetic blog post by chief executive Jason Kilar in July that blamed requests by unspecified content providers.

Read between those lines: TV providers are worried about making it too easy for viewers to cancel subscriptions and switch to online viewing (as if their escalating charges and rigid programming bundles had nothing to do with that).

Boxee's developers then added a few software components to evade Hulu's interference: Although its home screen no longer sports a Hulu icon, its listing of TV shows includes those available on that site. For now.

Boxee exhibited other quirks that can't be blamed on Hulu. Its interface includes a few cluttered corners. It worked with an HP laptop's remote control but ignored a Mac's remote. It garbled some sites; only the top third of a Vimeo clip appeared.

You can chalk up some of these issues to Boxee's beta status, which it only reached early this month. (Marketing Vice President Andrew Kippen e-mailed that a full 1.0 release is due in early 2011, although the software should hit "production quality" by May.)

But Boxee's bugs are preferable to the self-imposed limitations of the more polished Hulu Desktop.

To its credit, this download for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux worked correctly with Apple and HP's remotes and supported such advanced Hulu options as queuing up shows for later viewing. But its idea of online video starts and ends with Hulu.

For anything else, you'll have to switch to some other program -- as if it's 1994 again and you need to log off CompuServe and dial up to AOL.

It's unclear whether Hulu's management will address this. There have been mutterings about possible subscription fees to access the site, which might lead to supported Hulu viewing in a wider variety of hardware and software.

While Hulu hesitates, Boxee has been moving ahead. Last week, it announced plans for a payment mechanism through which users could easily buy or rent shows. And in May, it plans to sell a cheap device called the Boxee Box that brings a key advantage: subtracting the computer from the viewing equation.

Configuring the Apple and HP machines required the sort of fussing usually reserved as punishment for tech columnists. The TV kept losing the Mac's video output until I swapped out an HDMI cable for a VGA connection, the HP didn't send any audio to the TV's speakers until I switched a "Playback devices" option, and the TV cut off some of each computer's desktop.

A simple, cheaper device such as the Boxee Box or Roku's similar players could avoid those glitches -- and the waste of assigning an entire computer for Web-media duty.

But building the likes of Boxee's software into TVs , Blu-ray players, digital video recorders or game consoles could be easier yet. And to judge from all the Internet-connected (yet Hulu-deprived) gear on display at the Consumer Electronics Show this month, that's where manufacturers are going.

Will the content owners meet them there? Or will they think that walling off their Web sites will accomplish anything but annoying customers?

Living with technology, or trying to? Read more at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward.

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