Roku Proves Good (Open Source) Things Come in Small Packages

by Ostatic Staff - May. 01, 2009

Granted, the Roku Netflix player isn't exactly a new device. The little hardware appliance (with open source roots) appeared around this time last year, and the reviews were quite favorable, with the biggest complaint cited being Netflix's relatively meager standard definition instant view selections.

My new family member -- a brand new Roku box -- shows just how much can change in a year. With the appropriate cables (and display), the Roku appliance is able to stream high definition media from Netflix and Amazon Video-On-Demand. Netflix integration still requires one has an account without a monthly limit on DVDs (that's any account that costs $8.99 or more per month). Amazon On-Demand titles can be rented, or purchased outright for unlimited viewing on the Roku device.

The one of the best things about Roku's use of open source software is that unless you are genuinely interested in that aspect, you never need to know.

Maybe that's something that's a blessing and a curse. Perhaps on a dedicated, embedded device like Roku (or even TiVO) the terms "open source" and "Linux" aren't used as the boogey men they are on things like netbooks or smart phones. On any of those devices, however, the real downside to open source for the average end user (if it exists) has less to do with stability or function and more to do with the manufacturer's configuration.

The good news is, at least in the Roku Netflix player's case, the hardware, software, and set up are easy to work with. I have two routers in the house. My first attempt was to connect to the one not listed on the "supported router" page. The first attempt was successful, and, even more impressive, was really quick to find and reconnect to the network after the firmware update. Yes, there was a firmware update when I first launched the device. It took all of three minutes, talked me through the steps (mostly by doing its thing, and telling me to sit tight).

In fact, most people wouldn't really have a clue about Roku's open tendencies unless they read the included sheet about the license agreement and warranty statement. And yes, I know that means that many running the Roku box still don't have a clue about the open source bits of the device. Nonetheless, the Roku player uses code developed by the OpenSSL Project and utilizes the work done by the Independent JPEG Group. And though the Roku player contains closed code, the components of the Roku system that are licensed under the GPL are available as tarballs (with the Roku team's modifications) on the Roku site.

This is really how it should be: the device stays out my way and just works if I don't care about modifying the code, but I am able to look under the hood (mostly) if I so choose. Even better (for all involved) is that the Roku team hopes to release an Open SDK at some point this year, enabling third party developers to deliver content and applications to Roku devices.