Akimbo: From Niches to Riches?


By Arik Hesseldahl When Akimbo first launched late last year with technology that pumps Web video to a TV set, it was missing one key ingredient: content. The San Mateo (Calif.)-based startup was selling network-ready set-top boxes for $200 plus a monthly subscription fee of about $10, but the programming was meager at best, consisting of niche offerings like foreign sitcoms and professional billiards and sailing.

Since then Akimbo has been landing content deals at a surprising pace. Today it will announce a deal with Major League Baseball's Advanced Media unit to carry on-demand programming -- Akimbo's first deal with a top-tier sports organization.

INSTANT REPLAY. Under terms of the pact, Akimbo subscribers will have access to replays of full games from previous seasons and to an historical video archive of important games and programming about past and present star players.

Currently, the archive is only accessible on a PC via subscription service on MLB.com. With the Akimbo box, which connects to a broadband Internet connection in the home, the same programming can be played on a TV set. Akimbo subscribers will also get highlights -- 10- to 15-minute clips -- of games the day after they're played.

The MLB deal is the latest in a string of content deals for Akimbo. In March, it secured rights to lifestyle programming from cable networks including the Food Network, Fine Living, and DIY, all owned by E.W. Scripps Co. (SSP) It also offers programming from A&E Television Networks' History and Biography channels as well as from the BBC, Time Warner's (TWX) Turner Classic Movies, Cartoon Network, and even CNN.

Add to that a huge selection of fringe content available on the Web that's hard to justify showing even on cable -- from shows in Chinese to cricket games -- and you end up with an intriguing platform that gives subscribers exactly what they want.

BEYOND THE BOX. Still, there's the $200 price on the Akimbo box, and the fact that it's yet another piece of hardware around the increasingly crowded TV set. But the long-term vision for Akimbo has never been about selling the boxes, says CEO Josh Goldman. "We really began with the box in order to demonstrate the concept," he says.

Instead, it's about building up the service. "It's been built with a variety of boxes in mind," Goldman says, whether cable receivers or home computers such as Microsoft's (MSFT) Media Center PCs. Akimbo's service will debut on those PCs in October.

Akimbo doesn't disclose the number of subscribers it has, but analyst Ben Bajarin of Creative Strategies says it's a relatively small audience so far -- somewhere in the mid-six-figure range, he estimates. But Akimbo's concept certainly has cable companies and Internet service providers alike looking closely and taking notes.

ON-DEMAND DEMAND. "The more content like this that's a little hard to get in broadcast model [but] available via download, the more that content owners will dip their feet in the water," Bajarin predicts. "They stand to gain a lot."

He believes that as Akimbo builds its base of users, attracting them with its quirky mix of content, set-top box manufacturers will show interest in adding Akimbo's service to their hardware. "Right now it's the niche content that's driving the service. But I know cable companies want to offer more in a purely on-demand environment," says Bajarin. "But none of them have the on-demand content that Akimbo does."

Thanks to deals like the one with MLB, it's a whole new ball game now. Hesseldahl is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York


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