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Left to Their Own Devices

The connected device market is still in the "early adopter" phase, but millions are enjoying the benefits of streamed and downloaded programs on a range of devices. That list of products grew this year, as did the content available.

Boxee
Boxee surprised many of us this year by making the jump from being a software company to one that produces hardware too. The company stayed in the headlines thanks partly to its enthusiastic fan base spreading the word. When it was software-only, Boxee was a media frontend that let users easily view streamed programs, as well as content from their local drives. It also includes a bit torrent client and social tools that let users recommend shows and view others users’ recommendations. To work in the living room, people installed it on an Apple TV or other connected computing device.

In December, however, the company wowed us by introducing the Boxee Box, a connected hardware device meant to simplify Boxee’s service for the nontechnical majority. The Box’s unusual shape means it should stand out in any home theater system. It should when it’s finally released, that is, in 2Q 2010 for about $200. The company’s notorious content hassles are far from over, however. Hulu blocked Boxee from streaming its content this year. While the company says it simply offers a browser like any home computer, the fact that content plays in the living room has made some media companies antsy that Boxee streams their shows without permission.

Roku
Roku had a banner year in 2009. Better than any other device in this article, it was able to penetrate the consciousness of the mass-market buyer and to make people understand the value of a TV-connected device. It’s no coincidence that it’s also the only device that’s price-sensitive. Paying $99 for the Roku HD is easy to justify, especially when it works with Netflix—and Netflix’s $8.99 per month unlimited plan offers unlimited streaming. That means movie buffs and families with children to entertain can get an almost unlimited flow of entertainment on tap for little expense.

A few smart additions in 2009 helped Roku fortify its position. In March it announced access to Amazon Video On Demand, and in October it introduced the $79 Roku SD (which lacks an HD hookup) and the $129 Roku HD-XR (which offers 802.11n connectivity). In November it bolstered its content lineup with free programs from a handful of online video sites. Netflix may be the killer app that drives sales, but once viewers have one of the affordable Rokus in their homes, it’s easy for them to discover a range of streaming online programming. We’ll see if Roku can add access to premium television programs, the current big omission, in 2010.

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