Panasonic, Replay ink set-top deal

Boxes may be ready to roll in April

Replay Networks is expected to announce today that electronics manufacturer Panasonic will begin mass producing set-top boxes for the digital video recorder company and distribute the devices through major retailers as early as April.

The announcement comes just after Mountain View, Calif.-based Replay said it plans to file a registration statement for an initial public offering of its common stock this week, presumably after it announces its deal with Panasonic.

Replay will use the millions it hopes to raise from the shares for general corporate purposes and to remain competitive with TiVo and similar personal television services planned from Microsoft’s WebTV and Canal Plus, among others.

Analysts say the systems could change the way consumers watch television, eliminating the need to watch a show in its network-scheduled timeslot.

Intl. Data Corp. forecasts that more than 1 million personal TV products will ship this year. Forrester Research estimates that 14 million Americans will be using personal television servers by 2004.

ReplayTV, which sells for $699, enables users to digitally record and store up to 20 hours of programming without a tape, as well as pause, rewind and fast-forward live programming and search for shows based on theme, actor or title. The price could fall now that the devices are being built and distributed by Panasonic.

Close rival TiVo filed an IPO in October, raising $92 million. Since its bow on Wall Street, the stock has been riding a roller coaster, hovering in the $30 range recently.

The Panasonic partnership would mark the first time Replay has sold its set-top boxes in stores since bowing the service in 1999. Until now, Replay has opted to take orders via its own Web site and other e-tailers’ sites, including Amazon.com.

Replay didn’t feel it was ready to go offline, saying it was “impossible to train sales people before Christmas,” veep of marketing Steve Shannon told Daily Variety.

TiVo has been selling its Philips-built devices through electronics retailers, including Best Buy and the Good Guys, for several months.

Despite reports that it sold out of its inventory this Christmas, Replay has declined to disclose exactly how many set-top boxes it has sold. Reps, however, said the figure is less than TiVo’s 4,400-plus subscriber count.

“It’s a special bird that will pay $699 for something they can’t touch,” Shannon said, referring to the online sales. “It’s still been too early for us to grow beyond the early adopter market.”

Panasonic will likely be only the first of several manufacturers to build Replay’s machines, with Replay serving as a licenser of its digital recording software. The system is designed so that it may eventually be built into television sets.

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