mobile radio technology

Live radio on the iPhone and iPod Touch

iPhone Streaming (C) 2008 GCap Media plc

Ubiquitous and mobile – two characteristics that encompass the radio experience. For over twenty years, between the invention of the transistor and the arrival of the Walkman, those characteristics were unique to radio (the medium) and radio (the device).

Radio, the device, has no future.

That seems to be a bold statement to make against sales of 6.5m DAB Digital Radios in the UK, all of which have been dedicated “radio” devices, or “radio” devices primarily sold on the feature of radio. Those radio devices have been bought by an unconverged generation; older, more affluent, less aware of the fashionability of technology. They have replaced traditional wooden transistor radios by radios that are reassuringly recognisable, and simple to operate.

Radio, the medium, is capable of much more.

Once you shake off the radio=medium=device thinking, it allows so much more exploration of what radio is, and what it could be for people who do live in a converged media world; who do want to buy technology because it’s fashionable, and who want functionality executed brilliantly. That isn’t to say that DAB is pointless. DAB Digital Radio is a distribution platform that is extremely well suited to delivering radio into converged mobile devices, and it’s been a huge impediment to its growth to have been stuck in the radio=medium=device paradigm.

So if we are passionate about retaining our ubiquity, our mobility and our attraction to users, then we have to go and find out what devices listeners love, and find a way of getting radio to them.

Apple dominate the personal, mobile entertainment device market.

They understand the combination of form and functionality, and are uncompromising about delivering a converged experience on a converged device. As technologists and media operators, we might rail against the tightly-controlled integrated platform they’ve created, but it works for consumers. However, even an organisation as focused on delivering a brilliant mobile entertainment device can slip up, and I think Apple have.

Why is there no live radio on the iPod / iPod Touch / iPhone?

Is it conspiracy or cockup? It’s hard to say, and I doubt Apple would want to admit to either. But the absence of the UK’s/Europe’s most popular form of mobile entertainment from the most popular mobile entertainment device makes no sense to me. If Apple is intent on universal ownership of their device (and that’s a reasonable objective for a company), then we need to be equally passionate and focused about getting radio onto them. By hook, or by crook.

GCap Media is the first broadcaster to deliver live streaming radio to the iPod Touch and iPhone

I am immensely proud of my team – Andy Buckingham, Ben Poor and newcomer Adam Fox – for hacking their way into the iPod Touch and iPhone and being the first people to deliver live streaming radio. You don’t need any specific firmware, you don’t need to jailbreak your device, you don’t need to install anything. Simply visiting from your iPod Touch or iPhone will give you access to the live streams from GCap’s major stations, plus those essential features that all radio must now come with; what’s playing now, on-demand audio (podcasts), opportunities to purchase (from a selection of vendors, incidentally), and access to the station websites. Andy, Ben and Adam did the creative work to make it happen, and my role was to provide encouragement, direction and cups of tea.

No doubt the inquisitive will quickly reverse engineer what we did, and we’ll see more and more radio arrive on the iPod Touch and iPhone, at which point I would rather hope that Apple would choose to support it formally and embrace the opportunities. I’m positive that the EMEA people in Apple can help their colleagues in Cupertino see how important radio is in Europe, and how rather forward looking European broadcasters are.

Of course, there are weaknesses to our approach (not least of which it involves rather more horsepower at the back than we would like, and it’s at times like these that Amazon EC2 is a welcome helping hand), and inherent weaknesses in trying to use WiFi (or even 3G) to provide a reliable streamed service to mobile devices. If you up and leave your WiFi hotspot, then you’re going to lose your radio service. Anyone who’s used 3G on their laptop to stream content will know that 3G is a very stop/start system when you’re on the move.

So view what we’ve done as a prototype – an “in principle” demonstration of what is possible with radio on the move on a modern media device. By itself it won’t be material to GCap’s earnings this year, and I doubt it will deliver significant listening hours. Indeed, using the current approach of streaming over WiFi or 3G, it scales very poorly and we will struggle to deal with significant numbers of concurrent listeners.

If this prototype excites listeners and the radio industry, then the next step is to capitalise on that and look at how to integrate a proper mass-market distribution technology into the device, of which only one candidate fits the bill (in terms of economics, functionality and power consumption) and that’s DAB Digital Radio. And of course, whilst Apple make the world’s most successful portable media device with a phone in it, Nokia make the world’s most successful mobile phones with media players in them – and Nokia are already ahead of Apple with Nokia Visual Radio and Nokia Streaming Radio.

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