Digeo Will Need Moxi at Retail

When the Moxi Media Center guide would get shown during panel sessions at cable shows a few years ago, it really stood out for me.

The graphical way Moxi Menu toggled among scheduled shows and recorded content, what’s on-demand and what’s in high-definition, was a sharp contrast to the TV Guide-style grid-based guides cable viewers use to sift through the multi-hundred-channel universe.

Forward-thinking Moxi came out at the January 2002 Consumer Electronics Show, promising to link disparate digital devices — from TV to music jukebox to Web surfer — and bearing cash from (then) AOL Time Warner, Cisco Systems, Paul Allen’s Vulcan Ventures and others.

Since then — fully under Vulcan’s wing as Digeo — it’s won a pair of technical Emmys, including one for the snazzy guide, and is currently hoping for a third.

Cable distribution has been slow, though, as is true for many set-top hawkers not named Motorola Broadband or Scientific Atlanta. Moxi now claims about 400,000 cable customers, with the biggest affiliates Vulcan-backed Charter and former Adelphia systems in Southern California (now Time Warner Cable’s) and Colorado Springs (Comcast’s).

The Adelphia changeover could be great, distribution-wise, as Digeo raises its presence with the top two cablers, with 37 million customers. Or not.

As Forrester Research vice president Josh Bernoff pointed out, Comcast and Time Warner have invested heavily in developing their own advanced user interfaces.

Comcast’s GuideWorks-made “iGuide,” based on technology acquired from Gemstar-TV Guide International, is in the operator’s Motorola boxes. Time Warner is coming out with a new guide that traces development back to Mystro, the onetime networked-DVR experiment.

That combination of development tracks “is not necessarily compatible with some other box that has a different guide interface in it,” Bernoff said.

Digeo CEO Mike Fidler says he has an ace in the hole: customer satisfaction among ex-Adelphia customers who have Moxi boxes is very high. Also, the Colorado Springs system is the first cable operation to market a digital video recording system that works in multiple rooms.

“We think we offer a superior customer experience,” he said. “I can tell you that the customers believe that they get a superior experience.”

Comcast and Time Warner will make their own choices going forward, Fidler conceded, and Moxi keeps talking to them. “As we’ve heard it they’re continuing to support us, still deploying us, and at this point have no intention to change.”

Time Warner Cable and Comcast corporate communications officials say their companies continue to support and deploy Moxi boxes in Southern California and Colorado Springs.

There have been indications, though, such support might not last long.

One cable analyst, who asked not to be identified, said a Time Warner official reported Digeo boxes wouldn’t be deployed on an ongoing basis. That came after a cable customer in the Carlsbad, Calif., area told Multichannel News that Time Warner customer-service representatives twice told him in recent weeks that Moxi boxes were going to be replaced by Motorola Broadband DVRs in the next couple of months. The reason: to avoid having incompatible guides deployed in the market, the customer said.

Under former Sony executive Fidler as CEO, Digeo is going to try to break beyond multichannel video distributors and appeal directly to consumers.

Fidler said he and chief operating officer Greg Gudorf, another former Sony executive (both hired in 2005), do intend to move into retail and will likely have more to say on the subject at January’s CES in Las Vegas.

Cable remains “a very important part of our business,” Fidler said. But Moxi needs to target consumers directly, give them a shot at the Moxi experience. “It’s very difficult to do being in an enclosed operator environment.”

Moxi faces some tough competition at retail, too. TiVo will be touting its broadband-equipped Series 3 HD DVRs at CES. Apple Computer will draw attention by saying more about Steve Jobs’s interactive TV play, too.

“CES for me is going to be that product,” Bernoff said of new television interfaces that include Web content and high-definition. “It’s all over the place.”

In cable, the best guide doesn’t always win. So here’s hoping if Digeo goes over the top and consumers like it, they’ll have an opportunity to buy it.