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Akimbo in Limbo

They built the technology, but will the content come?

4 min read

Video on demand over the Internet—its time may be here. Or at least, the technology may have finally caught up to the concept. With advances in compression technology that allow DVD-quality video to be speedily transported over a typical broadband Internet connection, and the rapidly growing penetration of broadband into homes, Internet video is finally doable at a reasonable price for a mainstream audience. And Akimbo Systems Inc., in San Mateo, Calif., is the first of what is likely to be a wave of companies attempting to make it into a business.

Akimbo's implementation of an Internet video service is based on a dedicated player it supplies, a low subscription fee (US $9.99 a month with the first three months free or $169.99 for the life of the player), a limited catalog of free content, and incidental fees. These include subscription fees to premium channels of $0.49 to $3 a month and à la carte fees, ranging from $0.49 for a 1-minute golf lesson, to $1.99 for a 25-minute educational video on volcanoes, to $3 to $4 for a 30-day feature film rental.

PHOTO: AKIMBO

Some content can be stored indefinitely on the player; other programs are deleted automatically after a set period. For its initial subscribers, the company intends to draw from niche audiences not well served by current cable and satellite systems—like non-English speakers, golf fanatics, surfers, and reggae fans. Currently, all content must be accessed through Akimbo's player, which lists for $229.99, and the device cannot be used to record broadcast or cable television shows.

Demanding Downloads: Akimbo Systems' video player connects to the Internet, allowing users to browse online listings and then download and view movies and other programs.

Personally, I like the idea. I have a broadband connection into my home, but I'm not a satellite or cable television subscriber because I don't want my three kids to spend much time viewing traditional cable and satellite programming. But $10 a month for a potpourri of content and another couple of bucks whenever I want to watch a movie—that makes more sense.

The Akimbo hardware, which contains an 80-gigabyte hard drive, is a flat silver and gray box that resembles a DVD player. To install it, I had to hook up video and audio cables to the television: it has analog outputs only, and, as for a DVD player, these are copy protected to prevent recording of the output on another device.

I also had to plug in a tiny IEEE 802.11b wireless network adapter ($69.95) to the back of the box to allow the device to connect to the Internet through my existing home network. Logging on to the service initially required an onscreen setup and a short visit via my computer to the company's Web page. Setup didn't go as smoothly as it should have, however, because I didn't realize that the wireless network key required was the hexadecimal equivalent of my normal network password. Once I got that straightened out, the system was up, and a menu system allowed me to browse available content.

Content at this point in the Akimbo rollout is a problem. When I reviewed the service in December, only 23 channels with very limited content were available—lots of video shorts; a fair amount of golf, cooking, and Chinese-language movies; and some sailing and surfing, silent movies, and children's television that my kids outgrew years ago. Akimbo has contracts with 80 other channels and says it is putting content up on its system as fast as possible. Recognizing that its content is limited, it is currently not charging users the monthly subscription fee.

On setup day, my 13-year-old quickly found a couple of dirt-biking videos on the extreme sports channel and watched them several times, proving the company's claim that some niche markets are eager for programming. However, the pricing of $3.99 for a seven-day viewing period seemed a little steep; ideally, my son would keep these videos in the library for future sleepover entertainment.

My 6-year-old grabbed a free program on the solar system that fascinated him. Later he watched an educational show on the bones of the human body, and he's now impressing everyone with bone facts. I made a few selections of British television shows that sounded interesting, but, as is typical for me, I haven't watched them yet. Later that week, my teen and I found some independent shorts of several minutes each that were absolutely hysterical—another thing I like about the Internet video idea is that there are good shows shorter than the standard 30-minute TV time window.

With my DSL connection, downloading a program took about as long as it would take to watch it. Unfortunately, the system can't start playing a show until downloading is completed. You don't have to be at home, though, to make your selections; you can start downloads from the company's Web site, https://www.akimbo.com.

Downloading slows down any simultaneous computer access to the Internet on your home network, but Akimbo downloads can be paused when you want to use your computer for bandwidth-heavy applications. You can even unplug the player while downloading: once everything is back on, any interrupted downloads resume automatically. The hard disk in the unit can store up to 200 hours of programming.

Playback had a few glitches. Resolution is mixed; the company indicates that that is due to the varying quality of source material—some arrives on VHS tape. There is no obvious Play button on the remote; you use the Select button to start a video and the Pause button to start it after a fast forward or rewind. Fast forward and rewind were annoyingly difficult to make work well; the cuts from frame to frame happen at only one speed (the progress bar gives you a clue where you are, but it's hard to scan to a particular point), and the video jumps briefly to where you started before picking up play.

Parental controls are easy to use; content is filtered by rating. When you specify a lower rating, items with higher ratings disappear from all lists, including the list of items stored locally.

Has Internet video on demand's time finally come? Possibly—if the playback bugs are ironed out and the content providers do indeed come on board.

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