Internet TV is a mirage, seeming so close yet turning out to be far away or downright unreal when you try to watch it. At least that's my take on the many past plans for zapping motion pictures over the Internet.
Now comes a fresh group of contenders for the Internet TV throne, all trying new twists on sending video over the global computer network. They carry funky names, too, like Akimbo, DaveTV, RipeTV and TimeshifTV. All are trying to exploit the increasing number of high-speed Internet links in homes and the declining costs for transmitting and storing digital video.
Some offer personalized entertainment networks, ones you or I create by mixing and matching niche programs that appeal to our inner couch-potato. Like TiVo, the digital recorder company, these services are trying to break away from the static program lineups that dominate today's TV. Unlike earlier Web video networks -- flops such as Pseudo.com and Digital Entertainment Network -- today's contenders collect content from other companies rather than producing their own.
Most of the new players are operating on the fringes of the Internet video free-for-all. That's because virtually all the leading cable and satellite companies, along with the movie studios, are rushing to develop their own video-on-demand services.
Walt Disney Co., for example, is going it alone with its MovieBeam service, which distributes shows to a special set-top TV box. TiVo recently announced a partnership with movies-by-mail outfit NetFlix, which calls for TiVo to develop a video downloading system while NetFlix negotiates licensing rights to distribute movies online.
For their part, five movie studios jointly created Movielink, a two-year-old Internet site offering a relatively cumbersome way to buy and download films. Mighty Microsoft, meanwhile, is playing in every corner of this three-ring circus, developing and licensing all kinds of new software to the companies creating digital video products, and selling its own video gear as well.
In the midst of this hubbub, a bunch of start-ups are trying to stake their own claim. First out of the gate was Akimbo Systems, which two weeks ago launched a service it describes as "video-on-demand to your TV" for $10 a month.
Akimbo's content, at least initially, is specialty shows: golf lessons, Chinese-language films, the Great Chefs cooking series, a mind-body-spiritual channel, college sports and extreme sports.
"The strategy is to go find content people are passionate about, foreign-language content and other things you can't get on cable,'' said chief executive Josh Goldman.
Akimbo has raised more than $12 million in venture capital for a service it hopes will do for Internet movies what Apple's iTunes did for digital music. Trouble is, the service requires you to buy a $230 box and doesn't offer much video yet -- only about 300 programs out of the more than 2,000 it plans to put online by the end of the year. It's not exactly on-demand, either; you have to download each show from the Internet to the Akimbo box before you can watch it.
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.