Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

Capped by Google's $1.65 billion purchase of YouTube, 2006 was certainly the year that broadband video captured the Internet's imagination. Yet Internet-delivered video faces several challenges, among them how to route that pipe to the television where video has traditionally been consumed. One early marketplace answer came from Akimbo. The company's service and set-top box drew mixed reviews at its debut, with many finding value in he diversity of its content but disappointment in the uneven quality of the video and the set-top's performance.

Akimbo came back for a second stab late last year with a new set-top, an RCA-branded IPTV receiver developed by Thomson's professional telecommunications division (which also brands the MSN TV set-top box. The good news is that the new set-top overcomes the glitches of the first-generation box and supports component video. However, Akimbo remains a standard-definition (at best) TV service. Setup is simple and straightforward; Akimbo offers an 802.11g adapter that plugs into one of the box's USB ports. And since everything on the service is downloaded, real-time throughput isn't much of an issue.

The Akimbo device's stubby remote supports the usual array of fast-forwarding, rewinding, and instant-replay features. Navigation is also straightforward, but doesn't do justice to the breadth of content on the service. The device's home screen shows some looping content clips, but most programs are limited to a picture and text description; don't expect any fancy translucent eye candy or picture-in-picture video.

However, the most noteworthy addition to the Akimbo set-top service is the addition of MovieLink, which brings a broad array of Hollywood titles to the device for rental. As with most digital video rental services, the terms are 30 days to view and the ill-conceived 24 hours to complete viewing once you've started watching the movie. Unfortunately, the one movie I watched on Akimbo was VHS quality and even referenced tape (and not D-VHS, I'm sure). Akimbo notes that, despite the allure of top Hollywood content, it wants to continue to emphasize long-tail and niche programming on the service. The service provides parental controls and offers adult-only content, which requires activation through the master account online.

MovieLink movies generally cost from $2 to $5 to rent, and herein lies one of the real challenges for the Akimbo box, which triple-dips. You pay for the box, you pay for the service and, far too often, you must pay for the content, even if it is sometimes only a few dollars to do so. Compare this with Disney's MovieBeam, which offers movies on-demand without the monthly fee.

Akimbo is starting to take a page from TiVo's book (which it in turn copied from cellular carriers' books) by heavily discounting the hardware. The company is now running a promotion, halving the box price to under $100. But hardware discounts will be less of a factor in the long run as Akimbo lobbies heavily to be added to existing platforms, particularly cable where it positions itself as a complement to video on demand. Akimbo's service is already available on Media Center PCs, and the collection of Internet-connected TVs and set-tops from the a variety of major PC and consumer electronics companies along with emerging networks ranging from fiber to high-speed wireless certainly offers a range of opportunities for the company.

Therefore, what I'd really like to see is either the elimination of the monthly fee (at the understood expense of more pay-to-play, of course) or a way to combine it with a MovieLink bundle of a movie or two per month, similar in spirit to Netflix' innovative "Watch Now" model. And especially for shorter-form content, streaming would provide a quick entertainment fix.

Unlike TiVo, Akimbo says it is open to exploring different monetization options. That said, Akimbo's $9.95 per month fee is less than that of TiVo or even satellite radio. With nearly 15,000 programs in its stable, there's almost certainly something on Akimbo for you. The only question is whether there's enough of it to sustain feeding the machine with your green.


Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. His blog can be read at http://www.rossrubin.com/outofthebox. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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Switched On: Akimbo's long tail adds big dogs