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