With version 12, the XBMC foundation is persisting in its efforts to make the media center software the go-to platform for your living room. But with multiple software and hardware vendors fighting the war for your TV, XBMC faces an uphill battle to stay relevant in the space.  – Zenonas Kyprianou, The Verge

As always, the opinions expressed below are only the opinions of Nathan Betzen. They are not necessarily representative of Team XBMC or the XBMC Foundation and should not be taken as such.

More than any other tech blog outlet (aside from possibly Giga Om), The Verge has come to my notice as the site most pessimistic about the future of XBMC, as other companies/foundations continue to push their way into the living rooms of the world.

I originally thought this attitude was related to something I did wrong, like writing my earlier Boxee TV post in which I profoundly disagreed with The Verge editor Nilay Patel.

But with the above quoted paragraph, I think I’ve come to understand, a bit, the mindset at The Verge. The issue has nothing to do with me. The issue is that The Verge sees XBMC as an also-ran and a has-been. XBMC requires more effort than it is worth, and it has no massive capital reserves to leverage companies into creating apps for its eco-system or licensing content for its users. On top of that, since XBMC doesn’t come natively on any box out there, it’s more effort than buying a Roku or Apple TV. Meanwhile, the Xbox 360 has an installed userbase of something like 50 million users. I’m not sure what the userbase of the PS3 is, but I assume it is also quite large. On a smaller scale, Roku has had sales of close to 5 million players in the US to date and the 3rd generation Apple TV has sold 2.7 million devices, all on its own.

How can a non-profit media center group hope to possibly compete against Roku, Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Sony? And, perhaps more importantly, why would users continue to keep choosing XBMC over its more wealthy counterparts, given how simple those counterparts are to use?

Those are interesting and difficult questions to answer, but perhaps we could start fairly simply. We have almost no way to officially measure the active userbase of XBMC. Each install doesn’t come with any kind of tracker that we can watch to see how many people have launched XBMC recently. However, by watching our server to see how many people update default addons over the course of a month or so, we can at least set a minimum baseline to the number of XBMC-equipped boxes that have been running.

Recent estimates (prior to the release of XBMC 12 and XBMC for Android) suggest that our active userbase is somewhere in the area of a bit over 2 million. Similar estimates from only a year and a half ago suggest the number was less than 1 million. Regardless of dire predictions, major growth appears to be happening, at least so far. The question, then, is why? And will the growth continue, or will that trend tail off, as another The Verge writer wrote, “I think XBMC is great, but as you allude to there’s a big barrier to entry, and in the grander scheme of things I think XBMC will become more and more marginalized.”

Needless to say, I think XBMC has got a future in front of it, but why? Well, I’ve got a lot of reasons, but to keep things simple here are the five biggest ones.

1. Regionalization

No offense to the Xbox 360, or the PS3, or the Apple TV, or any of the other boxes out there, but they all are, in the grand scheme of things, regional devices. Each of them seeks to act as a content distributor by making deals with other content distributors, either indirectly through Netflix and Hulu, or  directly through NBC, ABC, Warner Bros, etc. But those deals work in America. And that’s it. They may try to make new deals in Europe and South America, and Asia, and Africa, and Australia, but as long as those deals don’t provide access to the content people want, then the big media center hardware makers are going to be bit players in those regions.

XBMC: An international Project

XBMC is everywhere.

XBMC is a truly international project. It has more European devs than American devs. In the last 30 days, it’s had 1.26 million visits on the main page from Europe, 787 thousand visits from the Americas, 124 thousand from Asia, and 89 thousand from Oceania. And the president of the XBMC Foundation is from New Zealand!

XBMC does not provide content. XBMC will likely never work to provide content. That’s not what we do. We make software. And the only thing we avoid even more specifically than providing content is putting any restrictions on the content that users bring to the table.

Gabe Newell has said that piracy was a service problem. An economist would likely say, instead, that content piracy is the result of a market inefficiency. When there is demand for a product in a market, and there is literally no way to acquire that product legally, then alternative means of acquisition will present themselves. In the United States, the excuses for piracy are fewer,* but elsewhere any economist will tell you that if a million people are given the choice between either pirating with next to no fear of getting caught or waiting multiple years to see the next episode, a sizable chuck of that group is going to end up pirating. The relative morality of the question is meaningless. The classic comparison of copyright violations with theft break down in such an arena. “Piracy” only puts somebody out of work if it prevents a sale. In countries outside the US, the content isn’t being offered for sale in the first place, so piracy literally does not have the power to prevent the sale. The copyright owners have beaten piracy to the punch.

*Note: I say the excuse for piracy, not the excuse for breaking DRM encryption, whose primary purpose is exclusively to prevent users who have legally purchased content from using that content as they choose. DRM has nothing to do with preventing piracy. If the two had any connection at all, DRM’d content wouldn’t appear on pirate sites immediately after release.

We at XBMC would prefer that users purchase their content whenever possible. We generally like many/most of the movies and TV shows that are currently out. Ditto a great deal of music. And we want our users to support the creation of that content. But if our users literally don’t have the means of paying for that content due to region blocks, then we aren’t going to punish them for mistakes of geography (also, creating code to enforce region locks seems stupid and pointless and a whole lot of unnecessary work to us).

In other words, until content creators stop stupidly leaving millions/billions of dollars on the table and instead actively try to sell their content via the internet to the world, a prospect that doesn’t look at all likely in the near future, XBMC is going to continue to be a major player on entire continents. It’s a dubious position we find ourselves in, but that’s often the life of someone thrust into taking advantage of market inefficiencies.

2. Platform independence and compatibility

Android on an iPad? Seems legit!

Android on an iPad Mini? Seems legit!

Quick, name the Apple movie player that runs on Android. Name the Xbox player that runs on iOS. Name the Roku channels that can be viewed in Ubuntu. What’s that? You can’t? I’m shocked.

Unlike the other set-top box (STB) manufacturers out there, XBMC isn’t selling hardware. We don’t care whether you use a PC or a tablet or an STB. And we certainly don’t care what the manufacturer’s name on the box is. The only thing we care about is that XBMC runs the same on the tablet as it does on the STB as it does on the HTPC.

Some may see this stance as some kind of weakness, I guess. We see it as one of our biggest and most important strengths. If you know how to use XBMC on one device, you know how to use it on all of them.

Beyond the standard flag waving of “we work everywhere,” there’s a bigger truth. The future of STBs is in SOCs (systems on a chip) like the ARM platform. We will always support HTPCs, but the reality is that ARM completely changes the price-point nature of the market. Instead of $200 for the cheapest HTPC (which is probably missing a bunch of necessary stuff that’s really only available at the $500 price point), you can pay $100 or $80 or $35 for essentially the same XBMC experience.

For some reason, OS developers for the ARM platform have chosen to tie major updates to hardware revisions. For example, there’s no hardware reason the iPhone 4 can’t have Siri. And trying to upgrade your Android phone to the most recent version of Android is often either impossible or an ugly nightmare.

XBMC essentially ignores all of that nonsense. Any Android device that XBMC fully supports will ALWAYS get the most recent updates and features with each new revision, until such time as the underlying processor is no longer capable of coping. For example, decoding of the upcoming h.265 codec will likely be tied to the physical hardware decoder. There’s not much you can do about that in software.

3. Windows 3.1: A lesson in OEM dominance

People forget this, but Microsoft has absolutely destroyed Apple for the past 3 decades in terms of user bases. According to the secondary source Wikipedia in 2011, “Net Applications has estimated global desktop market share of Windows 92.2%, Apple 6.36%, Linux 1.41%.” And that was in 2011! Eleven years after the massive resurgence of Apple!

How did MS accomplish this task? They worked out agreements to be the default OS for every shipped non-Apple PC in the 80s, 90s, and 00s.

In this generation of ARM embedded devices, the clear winner in the default OS battle is shaping up to be Android, which may not sound like great news for XBMC, but right now Android is a fairly terrible OS for STBs. It’s designed for touchscreen support and isn’t really put together with the home television in mind (plus there’s that whole updating issue mentioned above).

If only there was some software out there that could be installed on top of STBs running Android by hardware vendors that can act as an Android app launcher and that ALSO was designed very specifically with the living room television in mind! And if only hardware vendors were actively courting the makers of that software! And if only those hardware vendors had begun putting out press releases talking about how excited they were to use this software! Man, that’d be an exciting world!

Sorry, sarcasm alert in the previous paragraph. Since vanilla Android has mostly failed in the STB space, many hardware companies appear to be recognizing the major value of implementing XBMC for Android specific solutions. Whether that recognition takes off and turns into a Windows 3.1/95/XP situation remains to be seen, but it’s pretty hard to find any other free and easy valid competitors beyond the crappy HTML5 spec. No offense to the Smart TV Alliance, but HTML5 was the wrong horse to back.* Don’t get me wrong. I love HTML5 in my web browser. HTML5 on my TV, on the other hand, sucks.

*Mark Zuckerberg is also sad about HTML5.

4. Addons

As mentioned, XBMC has no capital reserves to leverage companies into creating addons for its service. Fortunately, XBMC doesn’t need such reserves, because our users have shaped up as absolutely incredible addon developers right now. You want to stream The Daily Show? No problem, a user figured out how to make it available on both his Comedy Central website addon and on his Hulu addon. You want to use Hulu, but you don’t live in the United States? No problem again! That same developer has enabled proxy support.

Oh, you want to listen to the theme song of Friends while you try to decide which episode to watch? I’ve got just the user-created addon for you.

You hate how XBMC looks when you first install it? Not to sound too much like a broke record, but no problem! Our users have created skins that are 100% original, and they have created skins that perfectly emulate all those other services out there, like the Xbox 360 console, only without the incessant ads.

XBMC addons are developed using the relatively simple Python language, which means you, as a potential dev, don’t need to learn complex C++ to make most addons happen. It also means that making new addons occurs quickly and frequently. At this point, XBMC addon developers have already begun to heavily out-number core XBMC devs, and there are no signs of that pace slowing.

5. The Magic of Open Source

Perhaps the most certain fact is this: XBMC is open source, and as open source software, it has nearly infinite chances at life. Many people assume Open Source means difficult or ugly or only for geeks. They fail to recognize the fact that Open Source mostly means incredibly adaptable. Consider Linux. Linux isn’t really popular because it makes great desktop OS software. It’s popular because it is THE BEST means of deploying a website. Essentially, if you spend any time online, you probably spend virtually all that time dealing with a server running Linux. It’s also the best software for your router. And also the base for Android. Linux is, literally, all around us, like love or Christmas,* because smart people have been able to take the underlying code and adapt it for use everywhere.

Here, Linux is wearing sexy Christmas outifts

Here, Linux is wearing sexy Christmas outifts.

*I feel it in my fingers! I feel it in my toes!

Even if all development on XBMC halted tomorrow, there would undoubtedly be off-shoot projects based on it springing up overnight. It’s just the nature of the beast. There are too many smart people with access to (and interest in) the code to prevent that at this point. Big companies with a lot of money invested already heavily rely on it. The mark has been set.


My word counter tells me I’ve hit the 2325 word count, so I’ll try to keep this brief. The problem with the quote from The Verge at the top of this article is that it’s thinking too small. The Verge keeps waiting for XBMC to put out an XBMC box. But we aren’t interesting in putting out our own XBMC box. What we’d much rather do is see HTML5 replaced with XBMC on the television you buy. We’d rather see the proprietary software on the horrible Scientific Atlanta boxes provided by your cable tv operators replaced with robust XBMC software. We’d rather see Ouya become the pre-eminent gaming platform with XBMC as its main media center software. We’d rather kick back, drink some beers at a random bistro in Austria, maybe work on a bit of code, and watch our hardware friends conquer the world for XBMC while we cheerlead.

In other words, “Is XBMC still relevant?” is essentially the wrong question.  The only worthwhile question is this: How much longer will all that other 10-foot UI software even matter? It’s a bit grandios, sure, but does anyone see any other valid competitor with the power to be ubiquitous out there?