Fanhattan pulls a Rearden Steel the right way

I wrote about Fan TV over at Forbes, but as I’ve watched the generally positive buzz around the announcement unfold today, it made me think back a similar launch of a new living room box over a decade ago.

In essence, the company pulled a Rearden Steel, but unlike the Steve Perlman startup from 1999, Fanhattan looks to have done it right.

For those who don’t remember (which is likely 99 percent of you), back in 1999 WebTV founder Steven Perlman founded Rearden Steel (which later became Moxi). At the time, he told folks Rearden Steel was a code name for an exciting new company and technology he was developing. Given his background with WebTV, he naturally got the tech world buzzing pretty loudly.

So when Rearden Steel eventually raised the curtain on its mysterious and exciting technology, what did we see?

Carrier-centric media center devices.

Now, I don’t mean to belittle its technology. This was 2000 after all, and the technology at the time was pretty exciting. However, it never really seemed all that realistic and there never seemed any carrier appetite for these devices. Think about it: It’s over a decade later, and the idea of cable providers wanting to make the set-top box an advanced media center hub seems almost laughable now.

But the real problem with Rearden Steel/Moxi was its approach; By creating such excitement by telling us it was working on a secret new technology, it set expectations too high and were almost destined to let us all down.

Fanhattan — now Fan TV — didn’t do any of that. It just headfaked us all by posing as an app and social TV company for the first two years and then ultimately revealed an interesting and exciting new product in Fan TV.

Now, as I said over at Forbes, I still think it has big hurdles ahead. Carriers are slow and like their set-tops, and I think relying only on carrier distribution is a mistake. That said, I think the timing is right, and Fan TV, unlike most TV Everywhere efforts we’ve seen, seems like something we’d all want: a small and nearly invisible box with great design, a sexy new remote than people want to hold, and easy navigation around the service that weaves in strains of heavy data and social interaction to enhance the experience.

Somewhere I wonder if Steve Perlman is feeling a little envious.