The box contains an 80-gigabyte hard drive for storing up to 200 hours of programs. It plugs into your Internet broadband connection (via cable or DSL) and TV. Shows are copy-protected, so you can't move them to portable devices or share them online. Akimbo does make downloading painless, though, with a well-designed programming guide that appears on the TV screen and lets you select shows with a remote.
Akimbo has signed deals with 60 content providers so far. Not everything is included in its $10 monthly fee; some channels carry a premium and others are pay-per-view.
Many of Akimbo's content providers also are signing up with rivals, such as Dave Networks Inc., an Atlanta firm that plans to release a new service on Nov. 15. DaveTV is among several firms trying to use peer-to-peer technology to accelerate downloads and reduce transmission costs.
DaveTV will make its new media-player software available as a free download to anyone when it launches next month, allowing people to browse a program guide and watch DaveTV shows on their computers. In January, the company plans to expand its service -- offering a box similar to Akimbo's that plugs into a TV set on one side and a computer on the other, allowing people to watch shows downloaded from the Internet on their TVs.
In addition to sports, foreign-language and a ton of eclectic content, DaveTV plans to sell more than 10,000 music videos at prices yet to be determined, said chief executive Ken Lipscomb.
Unlike the mostly commercial-free Akimbo, DaveTV will be supported partly by targeted advertising. It will charge no monthly service fees but will offer pay-per-view content. It claims tens of thousands of hours of shows will be available at launch, partly because its technology allows film producers to upload video directly, eliminating the need for the company to handle the encoding.
"We are positioning this thing to be a broadcasting medium for the masses," Lipscomb said. "In less than five minutes, I can have a publisher create a channel on my network."
Both Akimbo and DaveTV said they are in talks with movie studios, trying to pry loose recent movies and other shows.
While such licensing deals have been slow in coming, the studio chiefs appear to realize they need more legal ways of distributing movies online if they hope to thwart Internet piracy, according to Dan Glickman, the new chief lobbyist for the Motion Picture Association of America.
"I think they recognize it has to come," Glickman said yesterday in a meeting with writers and editors at The Washington Post.
What remains to be seen is whether the niche content from these start-ups -- and others in the works -- can attract audiences big enough to carry them through to an era when mainstream entertainment finally pops up on Internet video guides.
Leslie Walker's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.