Boxee's Anti-Cable Gamble Could One-Up Apple's TV Plans

Whatever Apple is planning to do in with TV, it had better get busy. Boxee is planning to launch the second generation of its streaming set-top box, replacing 2010's Boxee Box with a device that sports DVR recording and live over-the-air broadcast TV reception, according to The Verge.

Somebody like Apple or Google may utlimately come to the table with a bigger advantage, but for now, Boxee looks like a formidable contender. 

Unlike Apple and Google, Boxee's new strategy doesn't depend on partnership with traditional content providers. Rather, the approach is: Screw cable. The company's attitude is not subtle. The device's box bears the exhortation, "Watch More Free TV." 

This is a real gamble for Boxee. Content is the most important asset in the struggle for TV's future. Even multi-billion dollar tech companies with a history of upending industries are bending over backward to cut deals with cable providers.

That said, Boxee's hardware refresh comes at a pivotal time for online video, as Internet companies from Google to Hulu ramp up their investments in premium, TV-quality shows, which are starting to rival the caliber of AMC and HBO. Internet TV is growing up fast, but it's still a toddler in the grand scheme of things. If this evolution continues, the Internet may well put a dent in cable's dominance in time. From the looks of their new device, Boxee stands to get a head start as Cupertino continues to haggle with cable companies.  

Boxee will soon have several features that Apple doesn't. DVR functionality is an often-cited demand for owners of these devices, and its something Steve Jobs wanted to include in a future Apple product. Integration with live broadcast signals is another thing Apple doesn't offer, but they're presumably trying to work pay-TV providers into the equation. 

Most important, Boxee offers a much richer native selection of Internet content available. Apple has stuck with only a handful of official apps rather than opening things up to third-party developers as its done with iOS. The potential game changer? AirPlay mirroring from iPad, iPhone and MacBooks to the Apple TV.

Boxee vs. Apple TV: It's All About Content

I've owned a Boxee Box for two years and at one point the device was my primary television source. That started to change when I bought the new Apple TV and - after initially being underwhelmed by the content selection - realized that anything I could view on my iPad (and now my MacBook) I could beam wirelessly to my television set. That, combined with Hulu Plus (something Boxee has long promised) turned the Apple TV into my primary source of TV content. Still, Apple doesn't let me plug external media directly into the device, as Boxee does. (I could stream my ripped DVD library over my home network via iTunes if I wanted to.) It also doesn't let me watch and record live TV, as Boxee soon will. 

That's the crucial difference between Boxee and Apple. (Google TV and Roku seem to exist somewhere between those two on the content/openness spectrum.) Apple wants you to play within its tightly walled ecosystem, purchasing shows and movies from iTunes. Boxee has no digital media empire to build or protect, so it's a lot easier to get a wider variety of content on their device. For now. 

In the end, Apple may be better positioned to win this game, but Boxee is putting up an worthy fight in the meantime. This should be interesting to watch.