Friday, October 31, 2008

Streaming to iPhone, I guess I have to care

Technology purist, stand aside! Streaming radio to the iPhone is important.

Back before Apple released the 3G iPhone, I derided the attempts to stream to iPhone. In my defense, my criticism was justified at that time. However, the facts on the ground have changed and now I must sing a different tune.

Case in point, Radio NRI had been streaming for months using standards-based 3GPP format to Sprint and AT&T phones as an off-deck solution. The results were less than stellar and the percentage of total listeners using the mobile streams was negligible.

Then in July, AOL Radio released their AOL Radio app for iPhone. As of October, an estimated 10% of the listeners enjoying the Radio NRI streams on AOL Radio were on the iPhone. 10%! That is a huge percentage considering the relative market share of iPhone. Yes, iPhone shipments are surging, but they still form potential audience that is an order of magnitude smaller than the broader multimedia phone market. At street events this summer, people would walk up to the Radio NRI booth with their iPhone saying "I found you guys here, this is amazing, I was just listening to Bollywood Classic Hits in my car using my iPhone."

What makes the popularity of iPhone radio applications so surprising is that they are generally using MP3 to deliver their streams. In general, MP3 is way too fat for mobile streaming and the streaming protocol it uses is not at all suited for reliable listening. Nonetheless, iPhone users are eating it up.

This audience has two big things going for it. First, the iPhone is dead easy to use. Do a side by side of trying to tune into on your Sprint multimedia handset (even on the lauded Samsung Instinct!) and then try to use AOL Radio on your iPhone. The comparison is like night and day. Using a dedicated radio app on an iPhone is much easier than navigating through your multimedia phone's clumsy UI.

Second, the iPhone user is motivated. They whole reason they bought the phone was to access the Internet, enjoy media, and to download custom apps. This motivation makes it natural that iPhone users would want to enjoy Internet radio on their iPhone. A perfect match.

So here I am, eating a bit of crow. To repeat the words of Stephen Colbert, "the free market has spoken." Internet radio on iPhone is a key audience for all broadcasters. Now they need to work to deliver iPhone apps that get beyond the crappy MP3 streaming and start delivering quality audio over reliable transports.

Stay tuned...

Thursday, October 30, 2008

AT&T's ulterior motive - 3G vs. WiFi

All hail! AT&T has given all the iPhone users free WiFi access inside their hotspot network at places like Starbucks. Pretty cool, huh?

Not so fast... While this may seem like altruistic behavior, it is just good business. 3G data is pretty darn expensive to deliver. If an AT&T customer with a dual-radio device, like an iPhone, is within range of their WiFi network, then it saves them a ton of cash to move that user onto the WiFi.

So, while it is definitely a nice capability for users, don't think AT&T is doing you a favor. They are just reducing their costs. On the other hand, if they suddenly enable VoIP over that free WiFi, the rules really would start changing.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Ford and embedded Bluetooth streaming

Even though this video is a blatant ad for Ford Focus, it nonetheless shows what I have been talking about. The built in stereo Bluetooth receiver allows you to establish a stream on your phone (assuming your phone has a data plan) and then play it back through the car speakers.

As a side note, it would be interesting to do some testing on the interaction between the low-quality of the Bluetooth codec (SBC) and low-quality streaming codecs like Windows Media audio. In any case, the buzz is that SBC doesn't quite cut it, so folks like APT, Kleer, and Qualcomm are creating alternative wireless solutions. Both APT and Qualcomm aim to work over Bluetooth transport, which, in my view, makes them more attractive.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Lessons from AM radio

Why isn't Internet radio more widespread? (both inside and outside the car.) I have heard a number of theories. Too many codecs, too many formats, lack of bandwidth in mobile, etc. However, all of these theories are actually details obscuring an underlying reality.

For Internet radio to become truly widespread, it needs to "just work." The consumer needs to be able to power on, turn the knob, and have good sound coming out. If they don't like what they are hearing, they need to be able to hit the seek button to find something more to their taste. That's it, it needs to be that simple.

Before all the technologists yell foul and complain that that Internet radio is too complex for this to happen, let's look at AM and FM radio. The consumer experience of AM and FM radio is exactly as I describe above, but a lot of moving pieces had to be fixed down before it could happen. AM and FM are complex, they just don't feel that way due to good standardization.

Although first broadcast in 1906, AM didn't become commercially viable in North America until standards were set for carrier amplitude, modulation frequency range, channel spacing, and overall carrier frequency ranges for receivers. This standard stood alone for 30+ years until FM arrived and presented another selection of standardized components which added up to a complete solution. As a result, over 80 years later, we can still turn on an AM radio, tune the dial, and enjoy the broadcasts. You don't need a different type of radio for every single station.

For Internet radio to reach the same robust level, we need a unified standard which covers connectivity, discovery, directory, transport, and playback. The good news is that the nature of the beast already gives us a standard for connectivity, TCP/IP and UDP. Now we need to get to the brass tacks of the remaining items.

Disovery: Internet radios need to have a kind of global UPnP, which makes it automatically aware of relevant directories. It may be as simple as a directory of directories maintained by ICANN, but that's just a quick guess. And the problem remains, who gets listed and in what order? This may be the most difficult part since it needs to be truly neutral for it to work across all vendors and broadcasters.

Directory: Internet radios need a standardized way to get a list of stations which are available. Also that list needs to have some kind of globally relevant set of sorting and grouping tags.

Transport: Once we know what streams are available and where they are, we need a limited set of ways to get access to them. HTTP "Shoutcast" is the most widespread transport method used today, but it doesn't do well in lossy environments like mobile/car. RTSP is used by 3GPP and in IPTV and works great for mobile, but it isn't widely used by today's Internet radio. Although the purists (and you know who you are) wouldn't like it, any standard will need to support both transports. We would also need to implement a standardized backchannel interface for services like Pandora, which takes user preferences into account.

Playback: Now that we have the stream unwrapped, we need to put it out over the speakers and on whatever display is available. That means we need an audio codec. Given its widespread use, MP3 is probably required here. However, the content fees put forward by Thomson coupled with the recent lack of clarity around MP3 patent ownership means that this could be an issue. MPEG-4 HE AAC v2 is the standard in mobile and is also used by Shoutcast. Given its open-standards nature, its bitrate efficiency, and clear patent pool, HE AAC v2 should also be fundamental. Beyond codec, the playback standard also has to have a fixed methodology for metadata presentation, including album art and even advertising.

The parts needed for a true Internet radio standard are nearly all off the shelf. Existing solutions can be quickly adopted or tweaked to match the needs. The only real barriers will be in compromise, cooperation, and will power. Once we come together and establish such a standard, then Internet radio can truly blossom, be free of the PC, and be as ubiquitous as AM & FM.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

IP radio = standard car option?

Sorry to disappoint, but I don't see Internet radio as being a standard feature in US cars anytime soon. However, that doesn't mean that the use of Internet radio in the car won't become widespread. It will just take a different path.

Legal requirements for handsfree operation of phones while driving is pushing adoption of Bluetooth in the car. Conversion kits will give way to standard option Bluetooth, likely with A2DP (e.g. stereo audio) support. This means that instead of native devices, the route for Internet radio into the car is a docked cellphone.

The choice of Bluetooth connecting docked phones is also driven by the economics of alternative solutions. To have widespread adoption, you need a standard. Yes, MPEG-4 HE AAC over RTP is the standard for streaming Internet radio to vast millions of mobile phones. However, the means of getting IP connectivity to the car are varied, causing the need to purchase some kind of custom device for each carrier. If you are going to spend money on a new connection device, why not just dock the phone in the car? I know there is growing interest in 3G to WiFi routers out there which will make your car a roaming hotspot using a 3G dongle or PCMCIA card, but that still doesn't solve the last 3 feet problem of connecting to the car speakers.

A final driver for the Bluetooth A2DP route is that the 3G carriers in the USA don't have a consumer friendly business model for non-voice device connections. In other regions (e.g. Japan), device makers can release a data-only device which uses the wireless data network. I have also heard of these kind of devices in the EU, using GSM for remote monitoring applications. However, the dynamics of the US market don't seem to go that way. WiMax won't cut it, even if it gets deployed. WiMax only works in metros and people want a radio that works at least nationwide - you would need 3G and 2.5G support in the radio. My Sprint or AT&T music phone will that criteria just fine and my flat rate data plan on those phones is $15/month.

Bottom line, unless the carriers make a joint push with device makers for a data-only IP radio and a standards body approves the profile (3GPP in cooperation with NAB would be a good choice), docked phones using A2DP are the most likely near to mid-term scenario. The only real downside with this solution is that the SBC codec used by default on A2DP phones has quality issues. For IP radio, though, the benefit of getting the stream you want will definitely outweigh this quality limitation.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Success! New York to Washington DC

This week our road test ranged East and with great success. The main test was an epic road trip down Interstate 95 from New York to Washington DC via New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. Below are the results.

Equipment: The trusty Samsung a920 music phone with Sprint PowerVision 3G service. No custom software, pure "stock" configuration out of the box.

Monday and Tuesday morning in New York City: Spot checks at various points both outside and inside plus cab-rides. Consistent performance with no drop outs. Didn't work in the subway.

Tuesday driving south on the New Jersey Turnpike via Edison, NJ to Wilmington, DE: In spite of dropouts around Newark airport (Sprints maps show no coverage holes there, btw), we had great performance south to Edison. Worked good during occasional checks during the rest of the drive. Perfect performance in Delaware.

Wednesday driving south on Interstate 95  from Wilmington, DE, through Baltimore, to the DC beltway: Near flawless with continuous listening the entire two hours. One re-buffer as I crossed the first bridge on the upper Chesapeake was countered by my amazement that it didn't drop out at all going through the tunnel in Baltimore! Breezed through the 90-degree route around the beltway and then out on the road to Dulles International Airport.

Conclusion: If satellite radio is the measure, then Internet radio via 3G is absolutely ready for prime time. My XM radio used to drop out when I went under dense pine trees and under some viaducts, even in area where there were ground repeaters (e.g. Palo Alto, CA on San Antonio Road heading towards 101). The continuous listening performance of Tuner2 radio on the Sprint PowerVision 3G network was just as good and the audio quality was much better. (Trust me - this is more than just a subjective statement on my part. Or better yet, don't trust me and take a listen for yourself.) Internet radio in the car is definitely a reality. Now we just need to let people know!