Interview: We talk to the lead developer of Plex Media Center for Mac OS X: It was doing Boxee-like stuff before Boxee was cool

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Plex’s main menu, shown with the optional Aeon skin

As far as XBMC forks go, Boxee certainly appears to have the most heat. It has VC money pouring in, flashy deals with content providers, and you’ll soon be able to buy a dedicated D-Link box to more easily use it on your TV. But Boxee isn’t the only XBMC-based media center that’s worth your time. It’s not even the first XBMC fork to go out and make a name for itself. Plex, which is exclusive to Mac OS X, was Boxee before Boxee was cool. I recently talked to the lead developer, Elan Feingold, to get a better understand of what Plex is, what it does, and where it’s going. Needless to say, if you’re running Mac OS X, you ought to give it a shot. It’s good.

Plex is a media center that’s based on XBMC, which began its life as Xbox Media Player, a media center that ran on hacked Microsoft Xboxes. Xbox Media Player was first released in 2002, and was far and away the most feature-rich media center of its time. As the project matured—and the project was in no way endorsed or supposed by Microsoft—it became XBMC, of which Plex (and Boxee and MediaPortal and Voddler, to name a few forks) is based upon.

In other words, every time you praise Boxee (or Plex, or any other XBMC-derived media center), keep in mind how it all started: a hobbyist project designed to play and organize videos, music, and photos on hacked Xboxes. (You may even want to go further back and give credit to the developers of mplayer and FFmpeg, the two core, open source “engines” that powered Xbox Media Player from Day One.) Let’s give credit where credit is due, is all.

With that, here’s my conversation with Elan. Hopefully it’s illuminating.

CrunchGear: What is Plex? How would you describe it to a total computer novice? Did you ever use XBMC/XBMP for the Xbox1?

Elan Feingold: Plex is a media center, which is to say it’s a program which gives you a “ten foot interface” for your media. You sit on the couch, drink beer, and view your videos, photos, and play music. It came out of the desire to get the XBMC code running on a more powerful machine that could handle higher resolution media, and the perfect platform seemed to be the Mac (especially with the Mini’s awesome form factor). I used XBMC for a few years on an old XBox (which is now sitting in my garage gathering mold) and loved it.

CG: When did development begin? How many people are on the development team? What’s your relationship with the XBMC guys?

Elan: The XBMC code was first downloaded to attempt to build it on the Mac in December 2007. My wife was out of town and I was bored, basically. Currently we have about five developers working on the different aspects of Plex. When I posted a progress report with screenshots about progress on the Mac port, I was contacted by the XBMC team, and brought on their team. Over the next few months, I made some early releases of the port, which I’d called “OSXBMC”. However, it became clear pretty early on that I had different goals and vision for the project than the XBMC team did, so we ended up forking the code to become Plex not too long afterwards.

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CG: Oh man, I remember OSXBMC! I remember the day it became Plex, too.

Elan: Do you remember all the shit I got about the name?

CG: Meh, people are haters.

Elan: You can’t please everyone.

CG: Right.

Elan: That [the OSXBMC time period] was a pretty hard time emotionally for me, just because of all the work i was doing on the code and all the strife and vitriol.

CG: Wow, OK. Now I have to ask do you (or the team) make any money off Plex? (How many mugs did you sell?) Or is this a labor-of-love sort of thing?

Elan: We have a donate link [the top-right hand corner] that people have been very generous with, but it’s not much more than is needed to cover servers, services, equipment, etc. I think we’ve sold a dozen or so mugs! So for now this has been very much a labor of love for us all.

CG: Gotcha. Now is Plex *just* a labor of love, or do you guys one day hope to make a few dollars for yourselves?

Elan: Don’t get me wrong, we’d all love to be doing this full-time and getting paid for it.

CG: You guys seem to have more of an “indie” feel to you than Boxee does.

Elan: I have been known to sport trendy facial hair.

CG: What a phenomenal response.

Elan: But that’s exactly the word we like to use to describe ourselves, “indie.”

CG: OK, well one of the big Boxee features is that you can have all sorts of apps on it. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Plex has had that for a little while. In fact, XBMC on the Xbox had little apps you could install, Shoutcast radio, X-Link Kai. Basically, Boxee didn’t invent the idea of media center apps, which I sorta feel is the perception out there…

Elan: Yeah, we’ve had the equivalent feature for over a year now. We have over 130 “apps.” They are easier to write than their Boxee counterparts, or their XBMC counterparts for that matter. We actually had our “app store,” called the Plex Media Server, running before Boxee came out with their “app box” or whatever it’s called.

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CG: So how much coding knowhow would it take to develop a Plex app? What are some of the more succesful ones?

Elan: Basically, you need to know a bit of Python, which is very easy to learn. You can write a Plex app in as little as 10-15 lines of code, since we have a really great framework for writing them, which ws developed by James Clarke, one of our main developers. Our most popular ones are Apple Movies Trailers, You Tube, Hulu, Netflix, MTV Music Videos, BBC iPlayer, Vimeo. We’ve had over one million app downloads so far.

CG: Now do you guys run into any issues with those guys (Hulu, Netflix, etc.)? I seem to recall Boxee and Hulu going back and forth for a while.

Elan: Yeah, so Netflix and Hulu have been polar opposites. We’ve had lots of friendly chats with Netflix and have a great relationship with them. We are listed in their app gallery as an official Netflix approved app. With Hulu our relationship has been a bit less congenial. They’ve taken quite a few direct actions to attempt to break our support for their site. Which i really appreciate, as it helped us make our support for those sorts of sites much, much more robust. And I’m flattered, they once named a div in their HTML “PL” which i assume stood for “Plex” (since it was trying to break us).

CG: That’s great. Well, not great, you know what I mean. Do you have those sorts of problems with any other content providers?

Elan: Most other content providers (such as Spotify, lots of other Swedish providers) really like being on our platform. Many have approached us, even offering support. Amusingly it seems to depend on the country. For some reason Swedish content providers really seems to like Plex, and, funny fact, Sweden has the highest per-capita of Plex users in the world.

CG: How does the U.S. rank? Do you have stats like, “We have 100 downloads from Texas, 400 from Paris, etc.”?

Elan: I’d have to find the report, but in the top 10 certainly, no thanks to the content providers!

CG: Do you talk to the Boxee guys at all? Have they tried to hire away one of your devs (or you) with offers of sweet VC money?

Elan: Funny story, I actually cooked dinner for Avner Ronen when he came out to Maui to see me. Besides that, I don’t think he’s approached any of our team. I made him a really spicy green Thai curry, and we had a friendly chat.

CG: Let’s talk Boxee box for a bit. Let’s say Netgear approached you guys about making a Boxee box-like box, would it be something you’d consider?

Elan: We’re not convinced that people want yet another box. That said, we do realize that the Mac Mini at $600 is too expensive to get the number of eyeballs we want.

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CG: And the Apple TV is still too underpowered to run it properly right?

Elan: So we’re committed to getting Plex to people more cheaply, just not with a piece of hardware. Yeah, I think the Apple TV is not a viable platform. It’s underpowered and closed.

CG: The Apple TV hasn’t done too well either, compared to other Apple products.

Elan: There’s been some buzz with XBMC lately with their support of a Broadcom chip that can do HD decoding, but you have to take apart your Apple TV and install the chip, which we don’t think many people who don’t live in their parents’ basement are going to do.

CG: Exactly, I was that kid, modding Xboxes, staying up all night trying to figure things like that out.

Elan: Yep, I started off life as an electrical engineer, so I was that kid too.

CG: So what would you say is the ideal Plex setup right now? I used to run a long HDMI cable from my iMac to my TV, then plug the iMac into a cheap 5.1 rig. Obviously not everyone is going to do that…

Elan: If you can afford it, the new Mac Minis are awesome: quiet, small, play HD content perfectly. That plus a surround receiver and you’re set. But yeah, people do use their laptops and iMacs as well. Fifty percent of our users use a Mac Mini, 20 percent use MacBook Pro, 12 percent use MacBook, 11 percent use iMac, 3 percent use Hackintosh. And apparently five of them use an XServe.

CG: That’s great, some guy at a server farm watching movies during the night shift. Now is Plex going for the “average guy” right now, or more the power user?

Elan: Plex is going for the average media-saavy consumer, and we realize that we have quite a bit of work left to make it easier to use. We don’t want to dumb it down as much as, say, Front Row, but right now there are two many sharp edges you can hurt yourself on.

CG: Like a new user interface you mean? Or that Plex is too Swiss Army Knife-y?

Elan: Like an evolved user interface, yes. One of the things that software projects have to keep in mind is that adding a feature adds a non-zero support cost. We don’t think having more features is necessarily better or more compelling, except to a small minority of people.

CG: Yeah, I’m one of those people who’d rather see software do one thing well than do 100 things not so well.

Elan: Precisely, and open source projects are notoriously bad at that.

CG: Yeah they are. So are you developing a new UI now, or is that something you have on your checklist of things to do in the future?

Elan: We’re in the process of evolving the current interface, we’ve spent quite a bit of time mocking things up, even building Flash interfaces to usability-test them.

CG: Oh, before I forget, do you have an official Twitter account? Twitter is all the rage, so I hear.

Elan: @Plexapp

CG: Excellent. So what’s next for Plex, just continued development?

Elan: Well, we’ve been hard at work on the Plex/Nine series.

CG: Will there be anything as dramatic as the Plex Media Server again? That sorta came out of nowhere.

Elan: Yes, you’re going to see a very interesting new Plex feature within the next couple of months.

CG: Excellent. Any hints?

Elan: Also with the Plex/Nine series will come the new Library system for managing your local content. It’s built from the ground up to kick ass.

CG: I was just gonna ask, built by you guys?

Elan: The new library system is built 100% by us, yes. So it should be an exciting year for Plex, I think, between the new Library, evolved user interface, and this surprise new feature.

CG: Very cool. What else do you do besides Plex?

Elan: I’m a freelance software consultant during the day. It’s only at night when I change into my shirt with the giant “P” in front.

CG: When can we expect Plex/Nine?

Elan: That seems to be the question everyone is asking!

CG: Like a rough estimate, or you can say “when it’s ready!”

Elan: I would say that you’ll see pieces emerge over the next few months. We’ll be releasing different bits and pieces over time. We’ll have the stable Plex/Eight series, and then we’ll begin introducing some of the new features into the Plex/Nine releases for people to play with. One of our main focuses has always been stability, which is why there have been five releases so far of the stable Plex/Eight series, with a focus on bug fixes.

CG: Has Apple ever contacted you guys? Maybe just to say, “Hey, cool app, guys.”

Elan: We have never heard from them, although a number of people who work in Apple retail stores have commented, “I recommend Plex to customers!” But nothing from Apple corporate to even acknowledge our existence. That’s fine with us, we’ve always tried to stay on its good side by not releasing Plex for a hacked Apple TV, etc.

CG: Have you given any thought to an iPhone App, like a fancy remote control or something?

Elan: Well, there are a few remotes out there already for the iPhone that support Plex. They seem to work pretty well.

CG: Oh, I don’t have an iPhone so I wasn’t sure.

Elan: You don’t have an iPhone? How can that possibly be?

CG: No sir!

Elan: How can you live? Oh, right, New York City. If you want to actually make phone calls the iPhone doesn’t work too well there I hear.

CG: It really doesn’t. It’s pretty shocking. A piece of junk Verizon phone sounds better. OK then, I have World of Warcraft to play so I’ll let you go. I’m not kidding, either.

Elan: Goodbye, and thanks!

Plex runs on Intel Macs running Leopard or higher. You can follow its development on Twitter, Facebook, or on its blog.

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