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Nokia, Microsoft… and Radio?

There’s plenty being written about Nokia’s decision to adopt Windows Phone 7 as the operating system for their handsets, consigning Symbian to history, and apparently moving Maemo / Meego to the back burner.

Radio has been a function on Nokia handsets for many years, and one of the unofficial benchmarks to measure DAB’s progress has been “when Nokia put DAB in their phones“.

It is then somewhat ironic that Nokia’s DAB Adaptor seems to be getting a warm reception, even though it’s shackled to a phone that appears to typify the dead-end Nokia find themselves in. (If ever there was a demonstration of the gulf between Nokia’s skills as a hardware maker and their ineptitude at writing software, the N8 running Symbian^3 is it).

So is Nokia’s “capitulation” to Microsoft a blow to the vision of getting radio into all mobile phones?

I don’t think so. This turmoil provides opportunities for the radio industry, but only if we’re smart enough to expose and nurture them.

The foundations are good. Nokia make good hardware, and radio is a function of the hardware. Whilst FM Radio reception is theoretically a function of most Bluetooth baseband stacks, making an FM Radio that works in a phone involves some skill with antennae. On that assessment, Nokia seem to do better with their antennae than some popular handset manufacturers.

It’s true that Symbian has had APIs to control FM Radio functionality for a long time, but people will tell you that the implementation is typically Symbian – inconsistent, over-complex and insufficiently reliable.

Windows Phone 7 is already surprisingly radio friendly, not least because of its lineage (or at least sibling relationship to) the Zune platform. FM Radio is implemented in all current Windows Phone 7 handsets, and the hardware seems to be good. The current APIs are naive, but that can be fixed if the radio industry explains clearly to Microsoft what it needs, and why its a good thing.

What about Nokia’s DAB Adaptor, now helplessly dragged down by a phone and platform that’s been life expired after just a few months? Frustratingly, this is simply one of the most sensitive DAB receivers I’ve ever used, and it would be ridiculous to lose that excellent engineering. The adaptor uses USB functionality, but requires a USB Host device, something virtually no mobile phone supports. But that could be changed at minimal engineering cost, and the adaptor rolled to plenty of other handsets and platforms.

Message to Nokia – don’t kill the DAB Adaptor. It’s very good. Keep it on your roadmap. Adjust it to work with Windows Phone 7. And Meego (of which more later).

The really big opportunity for radio is to present radio functionality as a strong product differentiator against Apple and Android. Apple seem to be right off radio and Android has such a fragmented approach to hardware design it will be hard to make radio a consistent  function. Microsoft/Nokia are now challengers, and challengers take risks and do things that the leaders find less easy to do.

If the radio industry wants radio to be a baseline feature of all mobile phones, it’s time to work hard with a challenger, and give up  chasing Apple like forlorn lovestruck teens. It’s time to talk about:

  • Consistent APIs that work across analogue and digital radio (in all its forms)
  • Firmware support for hybrid radio functionality
  • Receivers that are sensitive and low-power
  • Creating an environment where any developer can write an app that exploits radio functionality, and making it cool to do so
  • Agreeing business models that increase the value of radio to all parties – consumers, manufacturers, network operators and broadcasters.

It would be foolish to write Nokia/Microsoft off. They have scale and experience, and determination. Now seems to be a good time to get in at the ground floor.

A P.S. on Meego.

Full disclosure. My main phone is a Nokia N900 running Maemo, and I find it excellent. I see Meego with the potential to be a very powerful mobile OS. Maemo is a modified Debian-flavoured Linux kernel, and it demands a lot of processing power, which means battery performance is poor. But it’s slick, and it’s functional, and very very hackable. If Nokia can take Meego out of the limelight, put clever people on it, and time its market-arrival to coincide with the next generation of mobile processors, I think they’re back in the game. And Maemo has lovely radio support.

Free TV on mobiles – Free Radio too?

Samsung DMB Phone

Vodafone Germany appear to have thrown in the towel in the great battle to get mobile users to pay for mobile TV :

They’ve decided that a better plan is to enable reception of the existing Free-To-Air DVB-T service, and bolster their revenues from selling digital content linked to and around FTA TV. This sounds like a smart move to me, as someone else is paying for the network. Clearly it’s more “not good news” for the dedicated mobile technologies of DVB-H and DMB.

So, Vodafone Germany enables Free To Air TV reception via DVB-T, and at the same time Vodafone UK enables Free To Air Digital Radio reception via DAB by signing a network exclusive deal for the Samsung Steel.

(I’m tapping all the contacts I have to get the full info on the extent of DAB support in the Steel – does it do DLS Text, Slideshow, EPG?)

Maybe Vodafone Group is more joined up across Europe than we give them credit for?

Better than Mobile Internet?

Broadband Gone Down? Blame the Shoes

Joi Ito is an influential guy in new media circles, and he’s fretting about Mobile Internet. In his post “Is mobile Internet really such a good thing?“, he draws attention to some of the fundamental differences in business models between wired Internet and mobile Internet. It may all be IP packets at a technology level, but the way money flows around is very very different, and that’s what Joi is concerned about.

To briefly summarise his thoughts:

  • The mobile internet ecosystem is very regulated; either by government and law, or by the network operators and their own business plans
  • The operators are driven to pursue revenues “above the wire” (from applications) because the cost of their spectrum and networks is very high
  • A significant amount of money goes to vendors to make the network equipment – (infrastructure and, I guess, handsets)

It’s these issues which make Joi wonder if models that work on wired Internet will successfully transfer to mobile Internet.

I think that if we move over to mobile too quickly we’re risking moving our game to a platform where the DNA is not what we’re used to on the Internet and most importantly, putting money in the pockets of people who do not redistribute it to startups, but instead feed giant vendor ecologies instead.

To me, the obvious differences between wired and mobile Internet are:

  • You pay for your computer and you probably expect to keep it for 3-4 years. You don’t pay (directly) for your mobile phone, and you probably want to change it every 1-2 years to keep “in fashion”.
  • Your wired connection is probably pretty cheap for your ISP to maintain, and has a significant amount of capacity that can be dedicated just to you. The spectrum for your mobile connection probably cost your Telco a huge amount of money, has to be shared amongst everyone in your immediate vicinity, and probably isn’t that spacious.
  • Because of the two reasons above, your wired ISP probably doesn’t see itself as a significant content provider and certainly wouldn’t try and take a cut of all the transactions processed across “the Internet”. Your Telco probably needs to create “above the wire” application based revenue to make their business plan stack up, and keep the money flowing to pay for new handsets and new network infrastructure.

It seems to me that the ideal mass-market mobile application would benefit from a network where:

  • The users pay for their own devices, and expect them to last some time
  • The network operator has low infrastructure and spectrum costs, and offers widespread coverage

Hmmmm… I wonder what technology could possibly fit that bill. Answers on a postcard please, copied to Joi Ito.

Seriously, it does serve to highlight again that a broadcast technology has unique strengths, even in a world apparently dominated by bi-directional IP. If you can come up with a set of applications that can be broadcast (or combined with a lightweight use of IP), then you’re going to have a massive advantage over the guys relying on the Telcos to enable their business plans.

DAB = WEB

mac stillness by shapeshifter @ flickr.com (cc licenced)

Emily Bell wrote an Opinion article on MediaGuardian yesterday about the implications of a successful takeover of GCap Media by Global Radio.

In it, she notes:

“Many think that Hazlitt had a point about developing DAB. If the future distribution of radio is going to be via the web, then investing in an alternative infrastructure does seem slightly risky.”

So what does it mean to say “the future distribution of radio is going to be via the web“? What is “the web“?

In my mind, “the web” is a convenient catch-all to describe “stuff you access through a web browser”, and most people think of that being on a PC. Some people are getting used to the idea of surfing the web on something other than a PC, and the iPhone / iPod Touch have moved the concept of handheld browsing into the mainstream.

But how does “the web” get to you?

Moving “the web” around requires infrastructure. The majority of “the web” moves around on cables; cables between ISPs, cables under the sea, cables to your house.

Some of “the web” moves around without cables.

There are technologies like WiFi and GPRS+EDGE and 3G and HSPDA and WiMax.

All of these technologies require substantial infrastructure investment, have significant weaknesses and most are very expensive. Somebody has to lay cables, build towers, buy spectrum.

DAB has an image problem.

People think “DAB = Radio”, which is reasonable considering it’s been promoted as a “radio” system, championed by “radio companies” and all it’s ever done is transmit radio.

DAB = mobile broadband.

Each “multiplex” is equivalent to a 1.152MBit/s broadband connection.  Admittedly it’s a one way connection, but then so is HSPDA on 3G (and that’s a dirty secret that networks don’t like to shout  about). And DAB doesn’t use IP, but using IP would simply make it less efficient by introducing irrelevant routing information.

The UK Radio industry has flooded most UK cities with about 5MBit/s of completely free, mobile, broadband.

The investment in infrastructure to make that happen has been big for the radio industry (bigger than it appears it ought to have been), but tiny compared to other technology platforms. Miniscule. That’s why it’s the only mobile broadband platform you can access completely free and on devices costing less than £15 to buy outright.

The problem is that “the radio industry” struggles to understand how to monetise content other than radio on this valuable platform. But “new media” people who do some research understand the strengths and the weaknesses of DAB. A particular strength is that’s surprisingly economic and universal, and the weakness of being a unidirectional technology can be circumvented by combining with other technologies, like 3G or WiFi or something better at bi-directional traffic.

So investing in DAB isn’t “investing in an alternative infrastructure” at all. Investing in DAB is investing in “additional infrastructure” for distributing “the web”, and it’s particularly good at delivering the demanding application of streaming radio which people expect to access universally, on the move, for free. (WiFi and 3G simply can’t provide the Quality of Service to deliver uninterrupted mobile audio streaming).

But you can also use DAB to distribute web-sites, podcasts, video clips, traffic and travel data, public transport information, weather forecasts, local event data – anything you can access on “the web” can also be distributed simultaneously to millions of people via DAB.

We should start saying “DAB = WEB“.

(Bootnote – as I gave this blog its title, I remembered that “DABWEB” was the name of the very first webhost for Core, Planet Rock, The Storm and The Mix, wayyy back in 1999).

nanoDAB – DAB, Bluetooth and Mobile

GSMWorld 2008

Tucked away on TTP’s little stand (1B39) was something remarkable, and genuinely revolutionary. This is “nanoDAB“.

Well, actually, it’s not nanoDAB. It’s a Lobster phone, ex of BT Movio fame. (Remember them – Mobile TV – yes? no? oh well, suit yourself). TTP designed the guts of the BT Movio device, which most owners (all five thousand or so of them) will tell you was a dreadful mobile phone with a rather marvellous DAB Digital Radio in it. It was sensitive, it was functional, and it had a very nifty little EPG.

When Movio closed down, it seemed a shame to lose the phones. So it’s great news that TTP have extracted the goodness, and squeezed it down into a great DAB radio accessory which can hook into any device via Bluetooth. Neat.

At first glance, it’s great because now you can have DAB Digital Radio on any mobile phone, and you get a free handsfree too. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Whatever. It’s a great opportunity. (Unless you have an iPhone, of course, which has a crippled Bluetooth interface. Can’t imagine why that might be).

But here’s the very special sauce of the nanoDAB.

Why are all DAB Digital Radios square wooden boxes? Because radio manufacturers understand square wooden boxes, and colour displays, embedded browsers and memory over 2Mbytes scares the living daylights out of them. So much DAB functionality is unused because of boring radios, from manufacturers who assume that consumers are boring and unable to deal with change.

But a mobile phone. Well, it’s a nirvana. Handheld, colour screen, embedded browser, pots of storage, performance microprocessors, and a real, genuine, programmable operating system. Now the nanoDAB allows DAB data services to bridge into the mobile phone, and finally you can see what DAB is to radio – it’s mobile, wireless, broadband at a fraction of the cost of 3G/UMTS/WiFi or WiMax, and it’s ours… all ours. We control the spectum, and we get it for free.

TTP were demonstrating DLS text, Slideshow, EPG and downloading audio and video files for on-demand playback, and doing so on a Nokia, a Sony Ericsson and a Motorola phone. Just pair the device, it installs the relevant Java app, and off you go.

Go find out about nanoDAB. It will be worth it. Pass the details around to colleagues who don’t get DAB because all they see is wooden box radios.

nanoDAB is the future of DAB. Good work on TTP for salvaging something genuinely useful from the wreckage of BT Movio. Let’s hope they keep the APIs nice and open so that people can freely develop exciting applications for it. (And apologies to them for adding an enhanced profile to Slideshow about two weeks before they launched it. But that’s innovation).

(P.S. I didn’t actually see the nanoDAB device. It was kept hidden around the back for cryptic reasons to do with branding).

(P.P.S.The eagle eyed will spot the juxtaposition of “Planet Rock” with Slideshow content from KISS 100 in London. Apparently, that was an in-joke).

GSMWorld…zzzzz….

What's on at GSMWorld

Two days in Barcelona at GSMWorld, to devine what’s in the pipeline for the mobile environment over the next couple of years. Knowing what mobile devices manufacturers are going to be pressing into consumers’ hands means we can start working out how to get radio onto them, and what kind of experience it should be. It’s also early warning of new competition for listeners’ mobile time, and new directions for mobile content.

The good news, strangely, is that GSMWorld was pretty dull. No whizzy new phones, no outstanding new functionality, no category killers. It looks very much like the manufacturers have stop trying to capture market share off each other with incredible innovations, and are trying to make a decent margin by selling sensibly featured phones at presumably sensible prices (but who knows, because it’s the networks that buy the phones). So really, nothing sensational to report.

Nokia rolled out their N96, which is an N95 8GByte with some go-faster stripes. ARM, Qualcomm and a few other fabless silicon shops were “demonstrating” the Google Android platform. Samsung sheepishly rolled a statement saying they would demo an Android phone “soon”. I can see that major manufacturers don’t want to antagonise network operators at this stage over the issue of advertising funded mobile devices. Nokia Siemens (the networks and infrastructure business of Nokia) were demonstrating the concept of targetted advertising injected into the mobile network, and there was some talk of a collation of networks looking at advertising funded mobile web browsing.

Mobile TV was considerably reduced over the heydays of 2006. Most of the majors had their 2007 handsets on display, reserving a bit of space for DVB-H, T-DMB, S-DMB, ISDB-T or somesuchother format. But no big displays for TV, and interestingly it was music and media capable devices that were being given the prestige slots. Maybe Live TV on the go isn’t what consumers want – maybe something common sense might have told you. Oh well.

Nothing staggering in content either, other than to note that the ringtones/ringtunes/wallpapers business seems to be subsiding a bit. Adobe demonstrated Mobile Flash Lite, which offers some excellent opportunities to develop fun things for mobiles, including customising the User Interface. Opera Mobile is developing nicely too, and maybe it will slowly edge towards a defacto standard?

There was one interesting item – the nanoDAB. but I’m going to blog that as a separate item.

(PS. Isn’t it so nice of GSMWorld to consider our spiritual wellbeing, by making sure that the Prayer Room was located conveniently close to the Adult Content Zone. Well done chaps).

(PPS. “When clever travel plans go wrong”. I think I was the only delegate who took 17 hours to get back from Barcelona. What started as a “clever idea” quickly turned into a re-routing nightmare involving four hours sleep in a Holiday Inn Express, and delays at GVA, FRA and 35 minutes circling LHR waiting for fog to clear. I made it back to the office with minutes to spare).

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 www.musicradio.com 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.

CES – The Radio Perspective

CES Welcome Screen

I was lucky enough to visit The Consumer Electronics Show this year. CES lies at the very heart of the consumer electronics industry, and is a bellwether for the health of consumer spending and consumer interests. I went to go and see how radio fits into this frenetic and fast-moving world.

CES is vast. Truly awe-inspiringly vast. 140,000 delegates, thousands and thousands exhibitors, spread across tens of thousands of hall space across three huge venues. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to CES. (with apologies to Douglas Adams). Your chances of seeing it all are slimmer than a whelks chance in a supernova (ditto). But one does ones very best, and wears comfortable shoes (the very best tip I got from reading the blogosphere)

CES has the whole spectrum of consumer electronics providers – from the powerhouses of Samsung, LG, Microsoft, Intel, Motorola, Panasonic – to hundreds and hundreds of booths in a shanty town like arrangement representing the manufacturing communities of China and Taiwan.

Bill Gates (Microsoft) and Paul Otellini (Intel) both devoted large segments of their Keynote speeches to the future of Digital Entertainment (and a quick bash on Guitar Hero for Bill, and a bloke called Slash). Sweeping presentations and brilliant visuals emphasised a seamless entertainment experience in the home, the car and the mobile device. TV – yep. Films – you got ’em. Music – sure thing. Radio… Hello, hello, paging radio – is radio in the house? Apparently not. Oh well. (Otellini’s speech started with a reworking of The Buggles, Video Killed The Radio Star which rather fell over when people realised that video hasn’t actually killed the radio star – but hey, it was a great 80’s start to the show).

So where was radio amongst the vast shiny stands of the world’s major consumer electronics brands. Not present. Largely, I guess, because radio isn’t cutting edge techsexy. (Although I’ve no idea what LG were thinking of when inventing Mobile Pedestrian Handheld “MPH”, and attempting another flogging session of the dead horse of mobile TV). Does Microsoft’s Mediaroom (their IPTV platform) support radio; well, they weren’t sure, but it does do music. How about Microsoft Media Center (sic) – same response. Slightly better news at the Zune stand, where they recognised that lack of streaming support was a bit of a negative, and said there was a roadplan.

Nokia was good. They were demonstrating streaming radio on the N95 and Capital 95.8 streamed faultlessly first time. They talked about bringing together the Visual Radio and Streaming Radio into a single client, which is an exciting prospect. And they really joined in with the enviro/green theme of the show (which must have had a dedicated, and doubtless coal-fired, power plant. Amusingly the local coal lobby was running adverts on the local radio stations about how important and how much cleaner coal was nowadays. Yeah, yeah).

Most of the brand MP3 players have FM radio chucked in as an afterthought. It adds headcount, but nothing very exciting or revolutionary for the radio industry. iRiver were the notable exception, demoing their excellent little B20 device (which has the most comprehensive DAB Digital Radio implementation ever seen, on any device, anywhere) alongside their new W7 and W10 wifi enabled devices. Cowon also demo’ed a MP3+DAB radio unit. But where are Creative, Apple?

So, what about WiMax – to some people, the solution for broadcast radio to the masses? XOHM is the US implementation of WiMax, and they had a great theme driven stand. I asked which theme radio fitted into, and they thought it would probably be the “in the car” theme. But the “in the car” team hadn’t thought about radio. They thought it probably would work because mobile TV works over WiMax, but they promised to have a think about it and get back to me. Seems like the admiration between radio and WiMax isn’t mutual.

So far, the picture looks a bit glum. In a show driven by innovation in consumer electronics, there’s not much radio brings to the party. But let’s go deeper, and talk to the people on the stands.

Most the product managers I was able to talk to were quite interested in the idea of a new kind of radio. In essence, they were saying – give us something new to talk about, and we’ll include it. Logitech and Sonus talked about how their streaming devices can support visualisation, extended information, and interactivity – but no radio station has ever come and asked them about it. I spent some time with the folks from HD Radio, and they talked about how well the iTunes Tagging concept had been received, and demo’ed their natty media player device. Sirius and XM both had impressive stands showing of their range of own brand devices. Radio can do innovation, but apparently only when it’s done by new entrants; it would seem that legacy businesses find it awfully hard to get their heads round anything other than today and yesterday.

The other astonishing hit of the show, in terms of ubiquity, was Digital Picture Frames. They were simply everywhere, despite being described by one wag as “21st Century Lava Lamps”. I predict that an awful lot of homes will have them, and the manufacturers are already trying to differentiate themselves. Some have WiFi, some have Bluetooth, some play MP3s to accompany the pictures. But hang on, if it can play MP3, why not DAB digital radio? Isn’t the Kitchen Radio of the future actually a nifty 7″ digital picture frame, that shows Slideshow when you’re listening to the radio, and shows your favourite pictures when you’re not. Why, hey – now there’s an opportunity. (And a new Slideshow spec will be out shortly).

I was really pleased to be able to meet Jack Schofield of The Guardian in Vegas. We literally bumped into each other on the strip, and used the opportunity to have a really good discussion about DAB Digital Radio. Readers of both our outputs know that my responses have been tart at times, but I hope that the time we spent having an interesting and wide-ranging chat affirms with Jack that there’s no personal animosity, and that everyone on the Digital Radio project has a real passion for radio and that we do the very best we can with the resources and freedoms we have.

One final observation, and this is more to do with radio programming than digital radio. Vegas is the home of the 80’s pop hit. Music is piped everywhere – streets, lobbies, casino floors, restaurants, lifts. Not once, and I mean not one single time in a 6 day stay, did I hear anything other than pop hits from the 1980’s. Nu Shooz, I Can’t Wait; Falco, Der Kommisar; El Debarge, Who’s Johnny…. Given that Vegas is a multi-million dollar industry that is heavily researched, I believe that 80’s pop hits must make people happy, must make people spend lots of money, and therefore must be the sleeper hit format for digital radio in 2008.

There’s a flickr stream of my CES photos here.

Nick travelled with bmi from Manchester to Vegas, who were lovely, even if they caught a 5 hour delay on the way back. You have to love a British airline that serves clotted cream tea, cornish pasties and cottage pie, and brings the tea round before the coffee.

Nokia Visual Radio – Redux

Nokia Visual Radio on a handset

 

Installations Folder on N76 by RafeB @ flickr

Nokia Visual Radio had everything going for it, so why hasn’t it taken off?

The premise of adding visual and interactive content to radio has been proven by various research projects, and Nokia showed an outstanding commitment by putting the client software on virtually every one of their mainstream handsets for the last couple of years. Given the normal churn rate of handsets, that must mean that virtually every Nokia phone in mainstream use (and in turn, the majority of handsets in use) has access to the service. That’s millions and millions of consumers in most European countries who could access synchronised visual content from radio stations, and interact. From a commercial point of view, it ought to be an incredibly powerful proposition – direct response to radio/visual advertising from mobile handsets.

So why are there only 3 UK radio stations participating? Why are there less than 20 stations worldwide using the technology?

The biggest single stumbling block has been a comprehensive mis-understanding of the degree of effort radio stations were able (or willing) to put into producing the service. The initial software was so laughably bad, it was actually comical. I know one station that pretty much had three people authoring the output in real-time; that’s not software, that’s a pair of lead-boots. Nokia had advisors with plenty of technology experience, it’s fascinating to see such a disconnect with the real world of radio.

I was really pleased to see this critical bit of the chain fixed recently, with the news that RCS’s excellent (and frankly, visionary) Radioshow software is going to be the authoring tool for radio stations. Or more to the point, it allows radio stations to enter the Visual Radio business by simply piping their “playing now” information from their playout system through to RCS. Hopefully by dramatically lowering the bar, there will be far more stations on the service, creating the critical mass to make it a mainstream success.

There are more things that could be improved with Nokia Visual Radio – it should use RDS to identify a station and start the NVR service, rather than the extremely clunky directory system; and of course, the best way to deliver radio and data services to mobile devices is DAB Digital Radio. But I would say that Nokia have already invested a lot in Nokia Visual Radio, so for the time being it might be good for the radio industry to show some interest in return.

Great Rumour – Interesting Outcome

iPhone + Jahah

iphone plus jajah by jahah @ flickr 

It appears my scepticism about the rumours of the iPod to include Digital Radio was well founded. How on earth the real announcement got extrapolated to that is quite impossible to believe, but a salutary tale none-the-less.

The actual news is that the iPhone now has WiFi access to the iTunes store. (How clever not to go bunging up the tiny datafootpath of GPRS that is the iPhone’s sole contact with the real world). I’m not that impressed. Same application, different bearer, big deal.

The interesting stuff comes in the last breaths. Apple have linked up with Starbucks. A meeting of the brands – can you imagine the ponytails, chino jeans and lattés in those meetings? Starbucks, you might be aware, is also hopping on the music bandwagon by making big its policy of playing music in its stores. (I’m sure MacDonalds have done that for years?). But here’s the big revolutionary “oh my god, how clever are Apple?!” idea.

Starbucks will tell Apple the song that’s currently playing the store… and the last ten songs played. You can download them (using the WiFi in all Starbucks) with just a couple of clicks.

Wow. Wish I’d thought of that.

(Actually – wish I’d thought of taking the idea to Apple).

Now I wonder if Apple is interested in doing the same with radio stations, or if we’re just simply not cool enough for them? (Note to self – buy new Chinos, grow ponytail, drink more latté).