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.