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On-demand Akimbo shows promise; video service is a bit light on content

Wed, 05/04/2005 - 8:00pm
Edward C. Baig

Copyright 2005 Gannett Company, Inc.

USA TODAY

May 5, 2005, Thursday, FIRST EDITION

I'm not in the habit of watching Turkish television. Yet the other day I found myself gazing at Avrupa Yakasi on a Turkish channel known as AdvenTV. I've no idea what the title means or what was happening on screen. I don't speak Turkish. There were no subtitles. I guess the show is funny, judging by the laugh track.

The purpose of this cultural exercise was to sample Akimbo, a new video-on-demand subscription service from a Silicon Valley start-up of the same name. The nascent service may be a harbinger of how at least some programs and movies we watch in the future will reach our televisions — via cyberspace.

Akimbo shows promise, though I'd want a deeper roster of content before I'd recommend the Akimbo service without reservation.

Akimbo steps onto a potentially crowded dance floor. The cable/satellite crowd stakes its own claims to the video-on-demand market. And other Internet TV upstarts such as Dave Networks and Ripe Digital Entertainment also intend to make a mark. The worldwide value of consumer-oriented video subscription services delivered via the Internet is expected to reach more than $4.6 billion in 2008, research firm In-Stat says.

Unlike such rival downloadable movie services as CinemaNow and Movielink, Akimbo doesn't make its content playable on a PC. (It may do so eventually.)

But Akimbo correctly surmises that more viewers prefer watching on a TV. So when you connect Akimbo's set-top box to both a TV and to your home network (wirelessly or through an Ethernet cable), the service fetches video off the Internet and sends it to the TV.

You won't receive American Idol or Desperate Housewives through Akimbo. Not yet, anyway. But happily, most available programs are in English (though, as with Turkish TV, many are targeted at folks with narrowly focused tastes). The special-niche Akimbo lineup includes AsiaMovieChannel (subtitled Chinese serials), GreenCine (cult flicks), Guardian Studios (G-rated stand-up comics), Varsity TV (teen entertainment), VegTV (healthy eating) and Wine TV.

Some more-familiar broadcasters are also represented: A&E, BBC, Cartoon Network, CNN and History Channel.

Why would you want Akimbo if you're already a devotee of cable or satellite — and perhaps also use a digital video recorder such as TiVo? Well, for starters, you're unlikely to find many of these shows anyplace else. And all Akimbo programming is available on demand. Nothing is scheduled; you request a title when you want it. Akimbo's slogan: "Your wish is on-demand."

On-demand doesn't necessarily mean instant gratification. If a show you want is available from Akimbo, you must download it at a speed that hinges on your broadband connection. Sometimes it took me about as long as the length of the actual program to grab it. Sometimes longer. A 23-minute show on the Food Network, Urban Picnic, arrived in a little over an hour. Too bad you can't watch the program as it's downloading.

To find out what programs are available, you use a remote control to browse through Akimbo's on-screen guide, organized by channel or category. You can search by name or topic (golf, cooking, etc.). You can visit the MyAkimbo.com website to see what's on and arrange downloads. Akimbo also sends out a newsletter with recommendations.

The company says it's signed more than 90 video partners and deployed about four-dozen channels. Some shows are adult-oriented; parental controls can keep the material off-limits to minors.

The Akimbo setup is simple. To complete the process, though, you have to start on the TV, register on the computer and then return to the TV.

An Akimbo player with an 80-gigabyte hard drive (enough for up to 200 hours) costs $230. You'll have to supply your own Ethernet cable or wireless adapter. After a three-month promotion, you'll also have to pay a $10 monthly subscription fee or a one-time $170 fee that covers you through the life of the player you buy.

Charges may rise from there. Many programs are free and remain available indefinitely. But others carry a fee and may be viewed only within a week or 30 days before they expire. (You can watch as often as you like within the specified viewing period.)

Some added charges seemed arbitrary and left me feeling nickel-and-dimed. I downloaded a two-minute segment targeted at amateur pilots interested in flying over Aruba. The video cost 49 cents. That may not wreck your budget, but it's annoying just the same. Some shows have commercials.

There are premium services, too. You must pay an additional $3.99 a month to watch programs from the Baby Channel or Oasis TV (body-mind-spirit shows).

The Akimbo concept has long-term potential. But there's not enough compelling content at the moment to justify the price. Maybe I'd think differently if I were Turkish, Chinese or a pool shark. (Billiard Club Network is one of the channels.)

Still, I found some appealing things to watch, from the hokey BBC comedy Bernard and the Genie, about a down-on-his-luck yuppie who rubs a bottle, to AmazeFilms' From the 104th Floor, a short animated film about 9/11. I also downloaded the Bogart-Bacall movie The Big Sleep (Turner Classic Movies), a special on the filmmakers behind NFL Films (National Geographic) and interviews with President Bush (CNN) and Michael Moore (Oasis TV).

The video quality of the stuff I downloaded was fairly decent. Akimbo uses the Microsoft Windows Media 9 format. Certain programs, such as those on extreme sports, might be more tempting if they were available in high definition. Alas, Akimbo is not yet HDTV-ready. And short of dragging the Akimbo box from one TV to another, you can't share videos in multiple rooms; shows are copy protected. (Windows Media controls the DRM, or Digital Rights Management.)

Yet I question how many TV junkies want to add another subscription. Or another set-top box to a congested home entertainment system. Akimbo says the service could be built into DVRs, cable/satellite receivers, Media Centers, networked DVD players and game consoles. That might help. Maybe then I'll learn how to say couch potato in Turkish?

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