Sunday, July 20, 2014

Using Netflix in XBMC with Ubuntu 14.04

I use XBMC to run my home theater system.  It's a great piece of software that can be configured to look and act in a huge variety of ways while remaining straightforward to use and set up.  One of its great features is an add-on system with a rich set of third-party multimedia tools.

Until recently, it was pretty straightforward to have a nice experience in XBMC under Linux using a combination of XBMCFlix and Pipelight.  Pipelight provides a way to run the Silverlight video streaming libraries under Linux and XBMCFlix launches the Netflix player in a full-screen Chrome window.  Installing these add-ons meant that Netflix worked well[1] and integrated right into XBMC.

Recently, however, Google has dropped support for the Netscape Plugin API (NPAPI) which Pipelight relies on to make Silverlight work.  Since XBMCFlix launches Chrome and can't be configured to use Firefox, this means that upgrading to a recent version of Chrome breaks Netflix support in XBMC on Linux.

Fortunately it's easy to work around this and trick the Chrome launcher used by XBMC to use Firefox instead.  It's a dirty hack and isn't a great solution for a general purpose desktop (especially as it involves uninstalling Chrome, which you might want to keep) but it does the trick on my entertainment system.

Here's how to do it:

  1. Uninstall Chrome or Chromium.  (On Ubuntu or other Debian-based distribution, you can do this in the Software Center or by typing "sudo apt-get remove google-chrome" (or "sudo apt-get remove chromium-browser" in a terminal.)
  2. Launch Firefox, put it in full-screen mode by pressing F11, and exit it with Alt-F4.  This will make it default to full-screen next time it's launched.
  3. Using your favorite text editor, create a script in your home directory called "google-chrome".  (It's important to make it all lower case and include the hyphen.  It needs to be named exactly "google-chrome", nothing else.)
  4. Copy and paste the following into the text file:


    for i in $@; do
        if [[ $i =~ ^http ]]
          urls="$urls $i"

    firefox $urls
  5. Save the file.
  6. Make your script executable so it can be launched by XBMC by opening a terminal and typing "chmod a+x google-chrome".
  7. Put your script where the launcher for Chrome would normally live by typing "sudo mv google-chrome /usr/bin".
Once this is done, you can install Pipelight and XBMCFlix in XBMC as you normally would.  When XBMCFlix goes to launch Chrome, it will launch Firefox instead.

Again, this is a bit of an ugly hack, but if you have a PC that does nothing but run XBMC this will get you up and working quickly.  There are ways that a script like this could be exploited, but the odds of Netflix including one in a URL to target Linux users of XBMC are pretty low, and if you have a single-purpose home theater system there's probably not much damage that could be done anyway.

Now go enjoy some movies!

1: Well, after you lie to Netflix about what operating system you're running. It's 2014 and they are still doing browser user-agent sniffing as if it were useful or effective.