Meet the Moxi, which hopes to replace half your media gadgets and control the rest

Jan 14 issue — If you sold your company to Microsoft, how would you splurge? Steve Perlman dropped about a million bucks outfitting his Lake Tahoe, Calif., retreat with a self-designed digital home entertainment center, where TV, video, music (950 CDs!) and the Web are integrated, networked and easily controlled from any room. “It’s awesome,” he says.

NOW, PERLMAN hopes to bring such awesomeness to the homes of the mogully deprived. This week his new company, Moxi Digital, unveils a grand attempt to bring together the myriad streams of home entertainment into a system controllable by a single remote. Its hub is the Moxi Media Center, a dull silver slab resembling a DVD player with some extra buttons. Its primary function is a replacement for the satellite-TV receiver or cable set-top box that now streams into what is still the 800-pound gorilla of diversions, the television set. But that’s only the beginning.

Throw out your TiVo, because the Media Center can perform the functions of a personal video recorder like pausing broadcasts, or one-touch recording of soap operas and all-new “CSI” episodes. Junk your DVD/audio-CD player because there’s one built into the box. Ditch your AirPort, because the Media Center beams the same wi/fi signals to hook up your computers and appliances to a broadband Internet connection. And clear up space on your computer hard disk because the mammoth drive inside the Media Center (a minimum 80 gigabytes) will hold all your digital photos and home movies. While you’re at it, deep-six all those CD jewel boxes; and after you download the songs into the Moxi, you can use those shiny disks as coasters. And by 2003, Moxi will include the ability to make Internet-based phone calls, so kiss your telephones goodbye, too.

To fulfill the dream of always being able to see or hear something good, now, Moxi Digital is creating databases that catalog and cross-reference all recorded music, TV shows and movies—and also list what’s available at any given moment. These are accessible by menus that not only present desirable choices but transform your Moxi into a money pit. If you search for Tom Hanks, you’ll find next Tuesday’s HBO viewing of “Castaway,” an offer to buy a DVD of “Philadephia” (another click plays the soundtrack) and the news that his new flick is coming next month (want to buy a ticket?).

Users will get Moxi through providers of satellite TV (EchoStar will be first to offer it, later this year) and, be-ginning in 2003, cable television; AOL is Perlman’s lead investor (The Washington Post Company, which owns NEWSWEEK, also has a stake). For those companies, the system provides not just revenue from sales of music and movie tickets but protection of intellectual content, because Moxi is a “media lockbox” that embeds anticopying protections on music and videos that run on the system.

This means that Moxi could be a Trojan horse into the home for media that are controlled not by the user, but the provider; it may even help in realizing the dream of record labels and movie studios (like AOL): a “pay per view” world where every listen of a Lucinda Williams tune or viewing of a “Get Smart” rerun racks up another nickel on the cable bill. Perlman acknowledges that Moxi allows media providers to restrict users but believes the marketplace will compel providers “to provide the right balance—if you cross the line [and frustrate consumers], you’re doomed.”

Perlman himself is putting on the line his reputation as a techie who knows consumers. His previous effort, WebTV, never took off the way he hoped after Microsoft’s $503 million purchase of the company. Now he is Microsoft’s competitor in the battle to digitize, simplify and supercharge home entertainment—and make consumers feel like million-dollar media kings. At the risk of monthly bills that could make them paupers.