By Lisa Johnston
New products on display at the American International Toy Fair, held in N
Akimbo, a start-up video-on-demand over IP service based here, said it will launch next quarter a new personalized programming service and hardware which will deliver movies and specialized video content to subscribers' TV sets over broadband connections.
The goal of the company is to be "the first to deliver high-quality video — including eventually HDTV quality — over the Internet to TV sets," said Steve Shannon, Akimbo sales and marketing executive VP, who was one of the founders of the ReplayTV DVR.
"There is a fair amount of audio and video content going over the Internet now, but very little of it actually gets into the living room. We are trying to create what we believe is the right architecture so the consumers can use the Internet to get a really good quality, living-room style entertainment experience."
Akimbo will offer a hard-drive-equipped set-top box that will plug into a user's cable, DSL or broadband satellite service to find and download hundreds of videos including movies, specialized television programs and eventually homemade videos from its user community. Akimbo expects next-generation equipment to be equipped to upload video for general distribution over its servers. Copy-righted content, however, will be protected with Windows Digital Rights Management software to prevent the 'Napsterization' of protected films.
Users will bring their own broadband Internet connection, or arrange to subscribe to one through Akimbo. Eventually, Akimbo said, it expects broadband providers to add on Akimbo service as a value-added selling proposition. The set-top box initially will be distributed through retail partners at an expected $199 street price.
Shannon said Akimbo is talking with potential retail partners now, and could employ a number of business models for retailers, ranging from the profit on the sale of hardware to revenue sharing on the service.
Users will pay a $10 per month subscription fee to receive basic content and program listings. For additional fees, users can add premium level subscription services and pay-per-view offerings for such content as newly released movies, which would run $3 to $4 extra, for example, or ethnic content, such as Chinese TV, which could run up to $10 extra, Shannon said.
The basic service will include a variety of compelling niche and general audience fare, ranging from extreme sports to news and music video programming.
Shannon said he expects the initial target audience to be heavy with viewers who want highly specialized content, such as foreign language TV services, and niche programming that is not widely available through other services.
Video content will be hosted on servers both at regionally located Akimbo hosting facilities and by third party video IP companies such as CinemaNow and IFilm, which are popular distributors of video-over-IP to PCs.
Akimbo will act as an aggregator of content available on its servers and all of the servers of its partners so users will not have to search out titles from Web site to Web site. Akimbo will also centralize all of the billing and licensing, Shannon said.
Initially, Akimbo will manufacture and sell the set-top box, but Shannon said the company is talking with third-party manufacturers to build and market next-generation Akimbo products.
The company envisions its platform and service embedded into such products as game consoles, satellite receivers, DVRs and home media centers.
Akimbo's first standalone device is based on an Intel Celeron processor powering a WinCE 4.2 operating system. Shannon said the service is designed for cross-platform applications, so third-party manufacturers can design their own set-top boxes, or integrated devices.
Akimbo selected WinCE for its own box because "our content providers prefer Windows Media Format (compression) and Windows DRM (content protection), and over the long run those will probably work best on Windows platforms," Shannon said.
The initial Akimbo box is equipped with an 80GB hard disk drive, capable of storing up to 200 hours of video at a 1Mbps data rate, Shannon said. Content providers will offer videos at a variety of bit rates. The box will continuously download content to fill the hard drive for immediate playback. Approximately 10 hours of fresh content will be downloaded and updated every night.
Viewers will use a simple program guide to find and request content that interests them.
"It's like a hotel video-on-demand service that is tailored to you," Shannon explained.
The initial box will not be capable of handling higher bit rates necessary for high-definition content, although high-definition programming is part of Akimbo's plan. Shannon said high-def will wait for next-generation set-top boxes equipped with chips "that have enough horse power to decode HD." Akimbo has opted for software-based decoders, allowing the service to add new codecs as they become available.
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