RocketPod hopes networking devices will play

Device(s) taking interactivity a step farther

What Apple did with the iMac, consumer electronics start-up RocketPod hopes to do for interactive TV and home networking — make it simple enough to work straight out of the box and stylish enough that consumers want to own it.

“Nobody is assuming anymore that the TV is going to be the be-all and end-all entertainment device,” says RocketPod CEO David Roth.

The Pasadena-based company is launching a line of Lego-like stackable Internet devices this December it claims can share information and let even the most technology-deficient viewer access the Internet from the comfort of the couch or the car.

Want to watch “Mr. Wong” or “Bikini Bandits” from the living room? Punch it up on the remote. Need to check voice mail? Listen to it over the TV. Eventually, the networked connectivity RocketPod devices will let consumers do these things and more, like call their video recorder from a cell phone to record a favorite program, or play MP3s on the television, says Roth.

Interconnectivity key

That alone is not a radical idea. In the next few months, virtually every major manufacturer from Microsoft to Motorola will roll out ubiquitously named “Internet devices,” old-fashioned electronics such as cell phones, video recorders, and MP3 players that are able to access the Web. What makes RocketPod different, says Roth, is that all of its devices work on the same software platform, so they can talk to the Web and each other.

“We’re not a one-product company,” says Roth, referring to interactive TV competitors such as TiVo or Replay that specialize in set-top boxes. “We’re an entire system.”

The polished aluminum devices are about the size of a paperback novel, and snap together through circular “spine” connectors on the top of each unit. The hub, which will retail for about $50, connects to a home computer and can act as the entire system’s link to the Web. The rest of the components can be stacked on top of it, or connected to various component devices around the home (TV, MP3 player, stereo, camcorder) through palm-sized wireless modems that work up to 150 feet away.

Users make an initial visit to the RocketPod Website where they pick the kind of content they want, and can register a credit card number for purchases. After that, the entire system can be controlled from the computer, from a cell phone or with a home-based silver remote that doubles as a telephone.

And multiple access points is only the beginning of the system’s flexibility. Each Pod can sit on top of the device you already have — say your TiVo — but each can also perform that unit’s function if you don’t have, say, an MP3 player. That means the system doesn’t make your hardware obsolete, but rather works with it, filling in any gaps. What’s more, each RocketPod can be purchased individually and a network can be built as needed, at price points either lower or comparable to the devices on top of which they ride.

Like AOL

It’s a system that some critics say takes the Web away from consumers rather than giving more access. Like Japan’s popular i-mode or Microsoft’s recently announced .Net initiative, RocketPod users will be directed to RocketPod partners when they connect to the Web. In a model similar to AOL, entertainment companies, retailers and service providers will pay the company for premium placement on the interfaces. While the entire Internet can be accessed, the simplest content to find belongs to partners.

If RocketPod takes off, it’s good news for entertainment companies that make deals with the fledgling manufacturer. Although Roth won’t discuss specifics, he says content deals with “major” companies are already in the works. But critics also warn that consumer electronics is a tough market to break into, one where buyers often have established loyalties to big names like Sony or Nokia.

“You really don’t want to reinvent the wheel by getting into the hardware business,” says Yankee Group analyst Jim Penhune. “It’s a crowded market that tends to be very brand driven.”

Roth isn’t concerned. From negligible amounts of revenue today, interactive TV is expected to grow to a $20 billion a year industry by 2004, according to Forrester Research. Add to that the expected 27 million Internet devices projected to be sold in the U.S. by 2002 and you have a an enormous market with no established players. And even if consumers are hesitant about an upstart brand, Roth is betting RocketPod’s style will draw consumers in.

“When you’re launching a new brand, you have to have a distinctive look,” says Roth of RocketPod’s retro-futuristic mix. And since Roth and his team have worked on products for everyone from Volvo to Philips to the Pentegon, he knows whereof he speaks.

“We’ve always done things big,” says Roth. “We’re going to be the next major American consumer electronics company.”