Tech firms eye set-top opportunities

Investors, Apple offer $17.5 million

A stealthy Silicon Valley startup with plans to build the ultimate set-top box is announcing today that it has banked $17.5 million, part of it from one of Apple Computer’s early investors. Building B Home Entertainment hopes to have on the market next year a device that will blend live broadcast and cable content, on-demand programming, personalized niche fare and Internet access.

“Today, consumers have to put a lot of pieces together,” said Building B prexy Phil Wiser. “You have a cable box, maybe a separate DVR and a movie box like AppleTV.”

Company, founded in June 2006, is in the midst of forging content partnerships and recently added Sony BMG Music Entertainment chair Andy Lack to its board of directors. Building B hopes to assemble a wide selection of HD channels and content, and it will offer consumers a mix of subscription and a la carte pricing options. Company’s set-top box will be linked to a broadband connection and also receive some programming via the airwaves.

In April, Building B announced a partnership with Claria Corp. intended to enable its device to construct a profile for each member of the household, based on his or her viewing and Web-surfing habits, and suggest programming he or she might enjoy. That sort of profiling could prove attractive to advertisers.

Most likely distribution partners for Building B are telcos looking to offer an appealing triple-play package of voice, data and video. Competition will come from established players like TiVo, Scientific Atlanta (now part of Cisco), Motorola and Microsoft, which has its own set-top box division courting telcos.

Even as some ventures to introduce new tech atop the TV, such as Akimbo and MovieBeam, have struggled to gain momentum, other startups haven’t been dissuaded from seeking their own spot in the den. Silicon Valley-based Vudu Inc. soon will start selling an Internet-connected box that marketing VP Patrick Cosson describes as “a DVD replacement.” At less than $500, it will deliver about 5,000 movies from all of the major studios, plus 15 independent distributors. Pics, priced at 99¢-$3.99 for rental and $4.99-$19.99 for purchase, will start playing almost instantly.

“Our target is the person who is interested in instant gratification and likes the ease and simplicity of selecting content,” Cosson said.

Selecting the best box to buy, on the other hand, has never been more complicated.

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