Let me begin by saying that, to my knowledge, Ubuntu TV contains zero XBMC code. I could be entirely wrong about that. As far as I can tell, Ubuntu TV is based on Unity and not on XBMC at all. If you can say different using actual code evidence, feel free to do so in the comments.

I’ve seen a lot of opinions over the past few days about whether UTV would succeed, and as I read these opinions, the big question in my head was, “What does ‘succeed’ mean, dawg?*”

*Seriously, bro!

Two and a Half Men have averaged as many as 15 million (and more) viewers on a given episode, before repeats.* The Apple TV has sold over 2 million units. Roku has over a million users using its Roku DVP boxes. XBMC has slightly less than a million users.

*I weep for humanity.

That means that a not-very-good television series has between 7.5 and 15 times as many “users” as the ATV, Roku, or XBMC. Does that mean that all three players are “failures”? I honestly have no idea. I’m also vaguely curious how many ATVs were bought for the specific purpose of playing XBMC, but that’s probably a conversation for another day.

I’ll say this. There are a hair over 307 million people in the United States. If you can’t reach even 1% of that number in terms of active users, you are almost certainly a niche product, particularly given that XBMC, at least, is a worldwide brand, and there are about 7 billion people in the world.

But does being a niche product make you a failure? I don’t believe so. I’m a fairly big fan of XBMC, and, by my own above definition, it is niche software, but I certainly don’t think XBMC is a failure in any way, shape, or form.

Perhaps “success” and “failure” are not how we should define the relative reach of media center software.

Rather than focusing on whether UTV will be a failure or a success story, let’s look, instead, at what it takes for media center software to grow, gain a following, and ultimately explode into awesomeness. From there, we can make an educated guess about whether Ubuntu TV is following the path to massive growth or gross failure.

As far I can tell, there are only two necessary steps to reach Media Center Greatness.

First, by my reckoning, media center software needs to be not just easy, but incredibly intuitive to use. XBMC has a great deal of documentation for installation and rekerjiggering,* but ideally, it should need almost zero documentation for actual use. Two non-XBMC fantastic examples of relatively complex systems that are easy to use are the Xbox 360 Metro interface and iOS. Neither interface comes with instructions. On screen cues provide all the instruction needed. By those standards, Ubuntu TV looks at least as simple as any of the other systems out there.

*I’m fairly certain I just made this word up, but I bequeath it unto you, gentle reader, to use in all inappropriate and fantastical situations.

As far as intuitive content libraries go, I haven’t used Boxee in a long time, but back in the early days they took the very smart approach of totally ignoring where content came from. You were simply presented with a list of TV shows and Movies, and then given the option, after clicking the show you wanted, to choose your preferred source (e.g. local or Netflix or Hulu or Content Provider Website).

In my opinion, this is the ideal method of listing content. I don’t want to know that this show is coming from Netflix. I don’t want to click Netflix. I just want to be able to watch the show. If Ubuntu TV follows a similar path, it will be going down a good road. To some extent, XBMC is following this course with its improved library system. While this improvement is of very little interest to users, in my opinion, it is absolutely crucial for the further advancement of XBMC.

Second, ideally, the software needs to be “opt out.” This means, users of a particular service or hardware would get the software by default. In a perfect world (for a media center software provider), cable providers would toss their Scientific Atlanta* crap boxes by the wayside and form a partnership to make a given media center the defacto media center of the company. Imagine, for a moment, a world in which XBMC was the default media center for Comcast cable boxes. How AWESOME would that be?

*Interesting fact: Scientific Atlanta received a Tech and Engineering Emmy Award in 2008 for their work in Video On Demand and the resulting large scale VOD implementations. I guess the Emmy committee missed the fact that the Bittorrent protocol had been providing large scale VOD  for the previous 7 years.  I’ve said it before, but it is shocking to me how unwilling the MPAA is to embrace technology that would make the entire industry dramatically more wealthy. Seriously, MPAA execs and shareholders, there are 7 BILLION people on Earth. You have the opportunity to make SO MUCH MONEY off of these people. Why are you dragging your feet?

Comcast would get the huge media buzz of being a FLOSS supporter, would be providing a box that could tune all of Comcasts numerous stations, that practically begged customers to upgrade to a better internet service, and that could, potentially, finally give Comcast a means of competing with or leveraging Netflix. Meanwhile, XBMC would shoot from 1 million users to… well, a pretty large number.

Of course, I’d be shocked if any of that happened. I’d be doubly shocked if Comcast was the one to make it happen. It’s possible that there isn’t a less forward-thinking tech-based company in the entire world than Comcast. The actions of Comcast on the local government level make anything done by the MPAA/RIAA at the federal level look like kiddy games. I’d love to be proven wrong in this regard, but I shan’t hold my breath.

unlikely-duo

It'd be as unlikely as an orangutan having a pet dog! An orangutan, I say!

The alternative to becoming the de facto software in cable boxes is becoming the de facto software on televisions. In this regard, Ubuntu TV is right on track. The entire point of displaying Ubuntu TV at CES, as far as I can tell, was to get television manufacturers excited about replacing in house software with upscale Ubuntu TV software. Their success in this venture will tell a great deal about their success overall.

If you can’t get into TVs or cable boxes by default, you can still be fairly successful if you are on hardware that is cheap and competitive. You won’t have 14 million users, but, as demonstrated by Roku and Apple TV, you can certainly get 2 or 3 million.

If you can’t do that, you can STILL be fairly successful, but you have to be absolutely awesome with massive word of mouth support* (see XBMC and its derivatives Boxee and Plex). I don’t think Ubuntu TV is quite at that level. If I were to guess, I’d say most of the negativity to Ubuntu TV comes from this angle.

*Thanks, XBMC fans! You are awesome!

Honestly, if Canonical’s plan was exclusively to release Ubuntu TV into the wild as a downloadable and installable MythTV/XBMC clone, I would expect total and utter failure. I would expect the naysayers to be correct. Unity didn’t get a lot of love coming out of the box. Ubuntu is Linux only, which means it’d get about as much market share as Myth TV. With no plans to become a defacto Media Center, Ubuntu TV would basically just be Yet Another Linux Media Center, and would end up relegated to the ignore pile. Fortunately for Canonical, that’s not the plan.

Conclusion

That’s it. Two necessary steps toward Media Center Greatness: extremely intuitive controls that people are automatically comfortable with and opt-out preference. As far as I can tell, Ubuntu TV is making a push in both directions. Only time will tell how effective that push will be. At the very least though, they are not software to simply be ignored.

For you naysayers out there, sure, there are other things that will make the software more or less popular. Being able to control the look and select new skins without breaking the usability of the interface is nice. Having a powerful addon framework would be great and would almost certainly be necessary to move to the next level. But these are bonuses. They are why one person prefers Community over It’s Always Sunny (Or why a person prefers XBMC over Plex). None of them are on the level of why people watch Two and a Half Men 3 times as much as either more creative and funny show (or why people use Scientific Atlanta boxes 14 times as much as either XBMC or Plex htpcs).

Ostensibly, this has been a discussion about Ubuntu TV, but, honestly, all of these rules apply to XBMC as well. These are things quite a lot of XBMC team members have been thinking about for at least the last 12 months. I don’t have any personal revelations to make right now about these thoughts specifically, but keep an eye on the XBMC main page. With luck, many interesting developments are going to be cropping up, both in the near future and over the course of 2012.

My guess is that CES 2013 is going to look VERY different than CES 2012, both in the media center game generically, and for XBMC specifically.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed that I’m right. Just like Natalie!

Natalie-Portman-fingers crossed-cover

Though, honestly, why you'd cross your fingers when you're already on the cover of Vogue is beyond me.


  • Marco
    • https://plus.google.com/111375213934404408615 Nathan

      Thanks, Marco! I fully intended on including that link and then completely forgot. Good catch.

  • pd

    No.

    The only way Linux is ever going to hit mainstream has happened already: servers and Android. All other Linux efforts are just wasting their time in niche land. Linux is:

    - Fragmented like a exploded cluster bomb
    - Hamstrung by two crappy desktop environments

    Just to name two major issues.

    Geek nerd bloggers should stop pushing Linux as it creates so much noise when the signal truth is that Linux will never hit mainstream unless it has an enormous backer like Google with Android.

    • Jim

      Well, linux is pretty much all over the place.

      TIVO? That’s in a fair few homes isn’t it?

      Lot of people have shiny-shiny new Samsung, LG, Sony TV’s. They’re all running Linux now aren’t they? I just watched the latest episode of Sherlock on the iPlayer running on Linux on my Samsung TV. So it must be true….

      Don’t those Roku Popcorn thingies that people go on about run Linux?

      Doesn’t the kindle run a varient of Linux?

      The Van Gogh’s Workroom (vending machine that produces pencil-sketched pictures of people) runs a variety of red-hat, I think?

      I even own some fruit machine’s that run Linux….

      Don’t *think* any of those things are servers or phones, but I could be mistaken?

      Jim

    • http://bassmadrigal.com bassmadrigal

      I’d bet that 4 years ago you would’ve said the same thing about Android. The thing is… if someone can pull off something truly interesting and can back it with marketing and a big budget (of which, Canonical is certainly one who might be able to do it). The key thing is it can’t be like the standard Linux software. This is where Android shines. No one can really tell it is Linux from its user interface. If you were to ask the majority of Verizon’s Droid users, I doubt many would know that Droid = Linux. That being said, I really haven’t looked at Ubuntu TV, so I can’t comment directly on that.

      The “Year of the Linux Desktop” will likely never happen, but Linux is slowly creeping into the lives of consumers, and most people out there don’t even realize it.

      • https://plus.google.com/111375213934404408615 Nathan

        OSX and iOS both also have a unix/linux background, just fyi.

  • Cody Schug

    I bought an appletv with the sole intent of using it as an xbmc/Netflix combo box…and it’s dreamy.

  • david nickel

    Hi;
    I’m pro linux and XBMC and yes while this woulkd be great to see happen cable providers useing xbmc for their pvr etc:) another thing is they want to know if we will pony up the cash.
    I bought the remote for xbmc while I wish it worked better for me I do not blame the maker it did and does work.
    if I could get full dolby audio support in said distro with xbmc I would pay for it.
    I’m sure we all would.
    I’d love to keep it open source like we all would but am willing to pay to support my os of choice as well. these guys that write our software have to eat as we do .
    they have kids and bills too.
    what they have done thus far is only the tip of it.
    just think if they had 1 the time to do all they want to do to build ouir os of choice up and could pay their bills while doing it. want to talk about freaking cool shnutt .
    yet alone if some one like Darren the super gamer creator could put his code skills across all platforms (live gaming DL and playing from said dual layer now as well)freak . as far as the other user with the fragmented comment yeah it’s a plus and a curse . you have choice and due to that choice it causes issues. gnome is good for me .at first I used kde . I’ve used PClinux os ,Mepis,Mint,Mandrake etc.
    in the end you have to use what you like and love. Deb is it for me So I know Use Pinguy OS Ubuntu based . we need sound to be kicked in the butt. I want hd audio ,I want Dolby support(any hardware maker up for it???). I want a linux sound card that has hd audio support for my desktop and htpc. and I don’t want to use windows ;it’s why I use linux and have windows for thoses odd times I need it now(real rare anymore). end of my soapbox hope to see some of this this year.

  • david nickel

    man the typo bug hit me proof read before posting sorry guys lol.

  • BradVido88

    I agree that it’s way better to not know where content is coming from. All content should be provided upfront in XBMC’s library and should come from any plugin/stream/local source that it is available at (this is what my 3rd party addon does)

    When you say “To some extent, XBMC is following this course with its improved library system”, what do you mean exactly? How has XBMC’s library changed to accommodate this?

    • http://www.xbmcnerds.com mad-max

      Hey Nathan,

      again a really good article…
      IMHO the best you provided in the Dev-Journal…

      Keep ‘em coming!

      cheers,
      mad-max

      • https://plus.google.com/111375213934404408615 Nathan

        Thanks mad-max! I’m shooting for a new article every monday and wednesday. Let’s also keep our fingers crossed that I keep hitting those goals.

        • Jim

          Yeah, you’ve got to keep up the intensity now that I’m getting hooked……

        • http://www.xbmcnerds.com mad-max

          :-(
          Kept fingers crossed…no post for 10 days…

          Just joking…I know Eden is getting prepared to launch…
          That is more important…
          cheers,
          Max

    • https://plus.google.com/111375213934404408615 Nathan

      It’s really only a limited extent Brad, but with the files-in-lib structure, you could, for example, theoretically take a show folder out of Hulu and put it into your library.

      I don’t believe this is currently possible, but behavior similar to that is one of the goals of our slow reconfiguring of the library.

  • Harley

    Maybe if XBMC already came with PVR support then hardware manufacturer would look at it closer, even if it was not stable as long as it shows potential and it is a base to work from, but as it is today XBMC-PVR has been a seperate experimental branch for what fel like years and years :( Why don’t you just push it into the mainline now without waiting and sort out the kinks later as at least you would have something out there that more would know of which should mean more developers too :P