An Interview with Elan Feingold, Co-Founder and CTO of Plex

Two years ago I was shackled by the man.  You know who I’m talking about…the cable man.  Each month like a leech he mercilessly sucked my money – $10 for each HD DVR (even though HD channels they tout are ‘free’), another $10 each for HBO and Showtime, over $100 for their ‘gold service’, even $0.25 for each remote.  In total, I was paying over $200/month for crappy, often pixelated service with a remote and interface that was decades old and about as aesthetically pleasing as Windows 3.1.  Outside our our TVs, I was a household of Macs, lured in by Pied Piper Jobs’ beautiful and easy to use products.  “Surely,” I said to myself, “surely there must be a better way.”

Feverishly trolling the internet in search of a solution, I came upon Plex, the at-the-time Mac-only media center software in beta development, version 0.8.  I downloaded the application, installing it on my desktop iMac which was hooked up by firewire to a 1TB external hard drive.  I began to experiment.  10′ easy to use interface?  Check.  Seamlessly integrated TV and Movie metadata from the web with atheistically pleasing fan art and graphics?  Check.  Plays just about every type of media format out there?  Check.  Integrates with iTunes and iPhoto seamlessly bringing my music and photos to the big screen?  Check.

Could it be, could I have found the answer?  Over the next six months I played, tested, and slowly introduced Plex to my family.  With the addition of a rooftop antenna, a Synology NAS, EyeTV, HDHomeRun and a MacMini, I was able to cut the cord.  Break even  to recoup those additional purchases was about one year.  Today, with three Roku boxes, an AppleTV, and a bevy of iPhones and iPods, our family enjoys our media whenever, wherever we are – and its entirely due to Plex.  No other media server software available today offers the ease-of-use and breadth of platforms that Plex does.  It has far surpassed its legacy parent – XBMC – in this regard.  Today you can install the Plex Media Server on any Mac, Windows and just about any Linux box.  To watch your media you can use either a Mac or Windows machine, or an AppleTV, Roku box, and many Samsung and LG TVs.  You can take your media on the go on either your iPhone or Android smart phone – not to mention the Kindle Fire, many Android tablets, GoogleTV, and more recently, even WebOS tablets.  Quite simply, Plex has become a holistic media solution in a post-cable world.

Given our infatuation with the product, it was only natural that we reached out to Plex’s co-founder and CTO, Elan Feingold for an interview.  Graciously, he complied, and here dear readers, are his responses to our questions.  We hope you enjoy….

TotalHTPC: Plex’s roots are that as OSXBMC, the OSX fork of XBMC, however, Plex now offers its centralized Media Server software on Linux and Windows in addition to OSX. Given the breadth of software platforms covered, should die-hard OSX users be at all concerned as to Plex’s continued support?

Elan Feingold (EF):  Not at all. Most of the development team are Mac-lovers, run Plex off their Mac Minis, and most of us develop on OS X. Die-hard OS X users should not feel threatened at all; on the contrary, we’ve found bugs from porting/running on other platforms that improve the quality of the product on OS X.

TotalHTPC: Can you talk about the decision to support so many different platforms (OSX, Windows, Linux, iOS, Android, Roku) while still technically in beta, rather than getting Plex to 1.0 and then diversifying across platforms later?

EF:  The “1.0” tag is a rather arbitrary thing. When product versioning is driven by engineers, it never hits 1.0, and when it’s driven by marketing, it soon hits 10.0.That being said, we think the diversification has helped Plex as an eco-system and a platform, so we’re happy with how it’s worked out.

TotalHTPC: Given all those platforms, how big is the Plex team now? How do you see the Plex team evolving? Are you hiring?

EF:  We’re growing, and we’re hiring. We look for killer developers, and try to hire “from within” when possible, people who have been in the Plex community for a while. It’s a great way to get to know people, much better than a resume or a bullshit interview.

TotalHTPC:  A lot has been written about Boxee’s exit from the software business, chosing to focus on just the Boxee Box, does Plex have any plans to enter the hardware business?

EF: It would be hard to get excited about the idea of competing with Apple or Roku on a box.

TotalHPTC:  You struck a contractual relationship with LG a few years back, which ultimately appeared to be the springboard to incorporating Plex and really building out the effort as a full time one. Any plans for additional such relationships

EF:  Yes, and there are others in the works.

TotalHTPC:  Can you clarify which software/hardware platforms are ‘officially’ supported by Plex (ie Android) versus those that are not (ie Roku).

EF:  It’s a sliding scale. With an open platform, you can have people that show up with a client that Plex developers end up contributing to. The only real rule is that we definitely support products we charge for (but we also of course also support many free ones, such as the media server itself).

TotalHTPC:  What are some of the major challenges you have overcome since you have started developing the app? What are some of the biggest challenges at Plex now?

EF:  It’s hard to point to anything specific, there have certainly been some technical challenges along the way. Designing and building the library system inside the media server (Alexandria) was certainly quite challenging.

TotalHTPC:  What are you most proud of at Plex?

EF:  I’m personally most proud of the community we’ve built. Code can be written, widgets manufactured, products sold, none of that is rocket science, but creating a vibrant, supportive, and just all-around awesome community is so much harder. Our forum is a great example of this, we have tons of incredibly friendly and helpful people, it’s a real aberration compared to most other forums on the Internet. And the great thing is that it’s a contagious thing – people show up, are amazed at the friendly response they got to their post, and they pay it forward.

TotalHTPC:  What part(s) of Plex are the biggest disappointment(s)? What are the highest priority ‘bug fixes’ the Plex team is working on?

EF:  Honestly, there’s not much I regret about the way things have come along. We’ve had the good fortune of having made the right decisions along the way about a lot of things. Some of the time this was due to our “scrappiness” – we don’t have a giant team with hundreds of people, so we have to approach things smarter, think things through more.

TotalHTPC:  Do you plan on charging for the Media Server software at some point in the future?

EF:  We’d never start charging money for something that we were giving away. At some point, there might be a diamond-encrusted version of the media server, and we’d obviously have to charge for that, at least just to pass along the cost of the (cruelty-free) diamonds.

TotalHTPC:  Do you plan on charging for non-mobile Plex Client’s at some point in the future?

EF:  It’s hard to predict how the client ecosystem will evolve.

TotalHTPC:  How do you see Plex’s revenue model evolving in the future?

EF:  The revenue model will evolve like everything else here at Plex: with much forethought and analysis.

TotalHTPC:   There’s been a lot of discussion on the forums about Plex’s decision to remove user-managed remote access to the Media Server with the introduction of myPlex, can you share the thought process drove this decision, and why ultimately, Plex feels this is to the benefit of its users?

EF:  This seems like a personal question from you, since I know you’ve been involved in the discussion about this 🙂

For every one person who was annoyed by the change, 99 others thanked us for making remote access so simple. That was the goal we had, to make remote access to personal content as easy as possible. We’ve continued to improve this over time, as you’ve seen with the new PIN-based authentication on the Roku client. [see our quick article about Plex’s new Roku Beta Client]

At the end of the day, we want to make the system work best for the majority of people. This means removing features as well as adding them, and yes, some people will get annoyed with every feature that gets removed. That’s life.

TotalHTPC:  Five years from now, what is Plex? How has it evolved from what it has become today?

EF:  Five years from now, Plex will be implanted into your brain, and you’ll be able to watch video streamed directly into your visual cortex.

TotalHTPC:   Major news outlets are claiming cord cutting is a “fad” and will die away. Do you agree with this statement, what are your thoughts?

EF:  I personally think major “news” outlets (especially FOX) are a fad and will die away.

TotalHTPC:   You typically get most of the credit when people discuss Plex, however you’ve readily acknowledged the team effort that’s made Plex a reality, care to give a shout out to other Plex team members and note their contributions?

EF:  At this point we’re lucky enough to have a sizable team of incredibly talented engineers, so I really should only get credit for posting the occasional photo of Barkley. It would be hard to note everyone here, but let’s just say that they are the best group of people i’ve had to honor to work with. I also want to make sure to acknowledge all the help we get from the Plex Ninjas, which are an elite group (think Seal Team Six) who help with everything from support to the Wiki to forums.

TotalHTPC:   We at TotalHTPC and our readers can’t thank you enough for your time in answering our questions…How about letting us in on a hint of things in the works?

EF:  Really awesome stuff.

TotalHTPC:   With Raspberry Pi announcing availability at the end of February, have you guys thought about getting a client to work on it?

EF:  We’ve thought about it, yes.

Elan, thanks again for taking the time to answer our questions…and how does one get to be a “Plex Ninja”, I like the sound of that….

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