A little Moxi goes a long way

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen doesn't get much respect these days, but one of the companies in his
Steve Hamm

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen doesn't get much respect these days, but one of the companies in his "Wired World" could soon stir up the cable TV biz. It's Digeo, the Kirkland, Wash., outfit that is peddling what is arguably the best home media center gizmo - called Moxi. It's a jazzed-up set-top box with a user interface that's even better than TiVo and more features than it's possible to list in the first paragraph in a blog. Cash-strapped cable operators seem to be balking now, but Moxi is good enough that it might break the logjam and start them upgrading to an all-in-one home media device.

Moxi is the offspring of Digeo's 2002 acquisition of Moxi Digital. Remember? That was the company that Steve Perlman?of Apple Macintosh and WebTV fame?started and ran until it imploded. The Digeo people melded the two technologies and came up with something that is at the same time simple and full-featured. Quite a trick. Moxi combines digital video recording, TV programming, HDTV, video on demand, DVD player, music jukebox, photo galleries, games, and, soon, the ability to receive and make phone calls. It can also be used as a home networking hub. Right now, Digeo offers one- and two-TV packages, and, next year, it will be available in a four-TV package.

The user interface is the coolest part. Using little more than up, down, right, left, and select on a very touchie-feelie remote control, you can easily navigate through the host of entertainment choices and hundreds of TV channels that are strung out on vertical and horizontal menus. Since there are too many choices to click through, Moxi has a simple search feature that even brings up results based on anticipating what you're looking for. If you tap in "Jay" on the remote's letter keys, for instance. you'll get The Tonight Show as one of your results. It got a 2004 Emmy Award for Outstanding TV Interface. "We want to solve the living-room problem," says Greg Kleiman, the Digeo vice-president who gave me the demo. "The networks have been built, but what do you do about the last 10 feet? We need to make it easy for consumers to use this stuff." Here's what Om Malik, the broadband maven for Business 2.0 magazine has to say.

In spite of Moxi's outstanding features, cable companies have been slow on the uptake. Charter (Allen's company), Adelphia, and Comcast have ordered 250,000 units between them, but only 80,000 are already installed. Other cable companies, including Cox, Time Warner Cable, and CableOne are trialing the units. As a group, they seem to be balking at the cost of yet another expensive upgrade so soon on the heels of rolling out DVR services. Rich Green, an analyst at investment advisor Fulcrum Partners, who recently heard Digeo's pitch, says it's just a matter of time, though. "They will be forced to act by Direct TV," he says. "Cable doesn?t lead. It always plays catch up." Just look at the stats and you know he's right about the need for action. Cable has lost 25 million viewers to satellite TV in recent years.

Digeo's challenge now is timing. It's out there first with the best technology. But, by the time the cable folks are ready to buy, it will likely have plenty of competition. It's possible that Digeo will turn out to be another technology leader, like TiVo, that gets banged around when its market goes mainstream. On the other hand, Allen's due for another home run. Maybe the technology gods will smile on him this time.

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