Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Backlash! 10,000 channels of crap and only 1 button

Seven years after "AM, FM, iM," Internet radio devices are finally becoming mainstream. Broadband is ubiquitous, cheap, and reliable. WiFi is everywhere. And the bill of materials has reached the sub-$20 mark.

However, all is not well. These devices all seem to promote the fact that you can get "10,000+ stations." While 10,000 stations (and even more if you like) might be good thing on a PC, it is a disaster on a dedicated radio. The reality is that most of those 10,000 stations are just crap. Random playlists, police scanners, and other assorted flotsam. Finding the good among the bad and the ugly takes some work.

If users get frustrated on devices with a remote and multi-line displays like a Noxon, imagine the backlash when the users have only 1 or two buttons to navigate the infinite recursions of dubious "stations" presented by services like vTuner.

On the infinite dial, the value of the editor becomes more and more critical. Tuner2 inherits a philosophy started by Sonicbox back in 1999. Hand pick a selection of top stations, monitor them for reliability, and constantly weed out the bad ones. Couple that kind of tuning service with the ability to add stations that users discover on their own, and you have a winning approach which can easily be navigated by a couple buttons.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Streaming to iPhone - Who Cares?

On November 5th, WFMU claims to have rocked the world by streaming their radio station to the iPhone. All I have to say is "Who Cares?"

No offense to WFMU (a great independent station), but streaming to the iPhone is a non-event for a few reasons. First, the iPhone is $400, meaning that it is only available to the top tier of early adopters - in no way it is a mass medium for Internet radio. Second, it is only GPRS enabled, meaning that you can at best reliably deliver a 24Kbps stream to it. Third, it is a closed platform which has native streaming disabled. Sure, there are cracks and custom software, but Apple keeps breaking the cracks with updates, meaning that only the most dedicated otakus will have the desire to keep re-cracking and re-loading.

Don't get me wrong, I am a big fan of Apple. It's just that for some reason they don't get streaming. As one of my fellow travellers pointed out, why can't we connect iTouch to an Airport Express? Why can't I click on a song name in the iTunes radio player and purchase the song from the iTunes store (something that was obvious to a company called Sonicbox in 1999!)? And why did they disable streaming on the iPhone and iTouch?

Once the iTouch and iPhone platforms open up in February, then there will be a reason to install streaming software on an iPhone or iTouch. However, even then, because of the bandwidth limit in the iPhone, it will only be useful for in-home or in-coffee-store use. Definitely useless in the car.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Action in the front seat

Here is a video showing how to connect your phone to your car stereo. As a quick note, the data service shown in the demo is the Sprint Power Vision unlimited for $14.99/month. No additional subscription fees or special software on the phone were required for the radio. It all worked out of the box.

Friday, July 6, 2007

List of Sprint phones that work

Just went to the local Sprint store to check prices and see which phones will work. Tested the available Power Vision phones using Tuner2 Mobile for 3GPP Internet radio streams. All phone prices listed are with the 2 year plan and any applicable discounts. Of course, you would need to have the phones enabled with the $15/monthly Power Vision Access plan as well. Here are the results...

Bottom line: For $29.99 (online deal only), you can get a phone which doubles as an Internet radio (m510 from Samsung), but the proprietary connector prevents you from using it in your car. The LG Fusic, priced at $79.99, has the needed "dual jack" to allow both power and audio to be connected at the same time, or you can use the built in FM xmitter.

Current phones that would work in the car:
  • LG Fusic: $79.99, connects to stereo via built in FM xmitter or headphone jack, separate power connection
  • Samsung Upstage: $99.99, connects via stereo Bluetooth (requires stereo Bluetooth adapter for your car)
  • Samsung m500: $79.99, connects via headphone jack, separate power connection
  • Sanyo M1 (untested): $199.99, connects via stereo Bluetooth (requires stereo Bluetooth adaper for your car)

Phones that work for personal listening, but not for the car:

  • Moto KRZR: $79.99, custom connector does not allow simultaneous connection to headphone and power
  • Moto RAZR v3m: $59.99, custom connector does not allow simultaneous connection to headphone and power
  • Samsung m510: $29.99, custom connector does not allow simultaneous connection to headphone and power
  • Sanyo SCP-8400: $99.99, couldn't tell if the audio jack was stereo or not.

I followed up with a trip to the Cingular store, but the demo phones didn't have Internet enabled on them. Ah, well, we will find a way in a later post.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Success with Sprint Power Vision

May 2006 - I dumped Verizon and got a new contract with Sprint. I had Verizon for over 3 years, but Verizon plays control freak on their network and won't even let you browse to HTML sites off the deck, let alone stream live audio content.

Sprint, on the other hand, gives you unlimited 3G Internet, including streaming, on the phone for just $15/month (Power Vision Access plan). Sure, that price doesn't include Sprint TV, or the other bundled content, but I didn't want that stuff. I just wanted the pure, sweet nectar of free flowing Internet. Sprint delivered. Also, since the EVDO network was just being rolled out in the major metros, the bandwidth would be the real thing.

Since I am a music lover, I purchased the Samsung SPH-A920. $149.99 with a two year contract. Similar phones available now are much cheaper (more on that in a later post.) The cool thing is that all Sprint Power Vision EVDO phones are 3GPP enabled, complete with aacPlus audio. This means that if a content provider knows their stuff, the streaming audio won't sound like it is underwater or coming from a tin-can.

Phone in hand, the next step was connecting it to the car. Since my 2002 PT Cruiser still has a cassette deck (yeah, I know...), I could use a $10 cassette adapter. However, I still needed to connect it to the phone. This is where things get tricky. I needed an adapter to go from the 2.5mm stereo/mic jack to a common 3.5mm (1/8") stereo jack. Sprint didn't carry them at the time, but luckily I was able to pick one up from the local Cingular store.

Adapter in hand, I connected the phone to the car, typed the Groove Salad url into my media player, and blammo, I had high-quality, untethered, Internet radio right in my car! The quality was even better than most XM Radio channels and I didn't have to pay an extra subscription. Listening to streaming radio drained the phone's battery, but a $30 car charger solved that problem. Very nice!

Not bad for May 2006. However, looking at my feature list for the Ideal Internet Car Radio, a couple problems remained:

  • EVDO wasn't yet deployed wide enough for reliable listening over long distances.
  • The phone was over $99.
  • Available free content was pretty limited.
  • Tuning into a radio station was pretty painful. (send yourself an SMS from the PC, or manually type in the URL. How do I text in a 'slash' again...?)

Fast forward to Summer 2007. Thanks to Sprint, EVDO now covers all major population areas and major transportation corridors. Thanks to Samsung, Motorola, Nokia, and Sanyo, aacPlus 3GPP-enabled phones are available for much lower prices. Thanks to Tuner2, there is a single point of tuning for high-quality Internet radio on the mobile phone. The content list isn't huge, but it is growing. And in the next couple of months it will grow like crazy once stations catch on to the untapped audience. Using Tuner2 mobile on my A920, today I drive around Southern California enjoying Internet radio, free and clear.

Things are looking good, but all is not sun and roses. In the next posts I will share some specifics about my LA driving tests, a long-distance drive through farm country, share a longer list of compatible phones, and talk about some issues you may encounter connecting the phones to your car.

-fred jackson

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Off to the races

So what is this all about? Since XM burst on the scene in 1999, I have been dreaming of the day when Internet radio would arrive in the car to give the satellite radio duopoly a run for its money. My first experiment was to take a spin around the parking lot at 241 Polaris Avenue, Mountain View, listening to my WiFi laptop through the car speakers.

Worked OK, but the range sucked!

Sprint and Verizon 1xRTT data cards soon arrived on the scene. Those had better range, of course, but the data hand-off was miserable, so driving down the road didn't work so well. Also, who wants to futz with a laptop on the passenger seat?

Smart phones arrived, but they are not a true mass market device and are notoriously short on standards-based multimedia features. Windows Media may be fine for the PC (for some), but stream it over a wireless network and it not only sounds bad, but cannot maintain a reliable stream.

So, now that I have ranted on what doesn't work, let's talk about what will work. The features of the Ideal Internet Car Radio are:

  1. Receiver device is an off the shelf, consumer device ($99 or less when purchased with a plan)
  2. Device supports standards-based mobile streaming (3GPP) out of the box
  3. Device comes with a low-cost, unlimited, 3G data plan
  4. Can access free radio (without additional subscription) from anywhere on the net.
  5. Can connect to the car audio.
  6. Can connect to car power *while* audio is connected (don't want to drain the battery!)
  7. Works reliably for long times & distances (can commute without significant hiccups)
  8. Does not need a special antenna.

This list quickly eliminates a lot of hyped stuff. Slacker fails, iPhone fails, Sansa Connect fails, and anything that only supports WMA or MP3 streaming fails.

The good news is that the list is now satisfied by a number of phones from open-minded carriers like Sprint and AT&T/Cingular. I have conducted experiments using these phones and the results are pretty amazing. More on that soon.

-fred jackson