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STOP THE PRESSES: 3Com, 2, 1 ... Kerbango!

The Kerbango Radio, one of the first true Internet appliances, looks like a cross between an old Wurlitzer jukebox and the dashboard of a '54 Buick. It also looks like it'll belong to 3Com soon. On June 27, 2000, 3Com announced that it was buying Kerbango for $80 million in stock. Not bad for a company that was only announced last Fall, employed only 28 people, and still hadn't produced its first and only product. (Though the Kerbango radio is expected to roll out shortly.)

Right now, Kerbango has three unique properties, the radio, its tuning system and its web site, which gives computer users direct access to thousands of stream sources—the “stations” the Kerbango radio will tune when it sits on your kitchen counter, plugged into the household network, listening to streams (those modern “signals”) over your DSL or cable line (or even dial-up, if you're willing to put up with modem-grade lo-fi).

The most significant fact about Kerbango, for our purposes, is the operating system at the heart of the blue box. That would be Linux. We're talking about the same embedded Linux that's the subject of our cover feature this month.

3Com has reason to be eager in this market. IDC expects the Information Appliance business to grow from $2.4 billion to $17.8 billion between 1999 and 2004. This would represent an increase from 11 to 89 million units. Surely a significant part of that 1999 figure is 3Com's own Palm Computing business.

Kerbango was also moving along at a nice clip when the 3Com deal was announced. In a separate agreement, THOMSON multimedia signed a Letter of Intent with Kerbango to brand and distribute an RCA brand Internet Radio that utilizes the Kerbango Internet Radio Tuning Service. 3Com also said it intends to follow a similar licensing strategy with its partners. Presumably that would include Palm.

When this news came in, we got in touch with Jim Gamble, Kerbango's President, and subjected him to a series of snarky questions. Here's how the dialog went.

Doc: Will the name stay?

Jim: Yes.

Doc: Can 3Com actually brand anything?

Jim: Seems like Palm did okay! They grew that from start up to multinational success. I've got no problem re-running that scenario for our radio...

Doc: Will Kerbango remain independent?

Jim: We will be a separate group inside 3Com. They want us to push the radio and our tuning service. In fact, their main input early on has been, “how can we help you do more faster?”

Doc: What will 3Com's “internet audio division” do, and where will Kerbango fit in that? Will the brand include more than the radio?

Jim: The radio and the tuning service is the start. More products will come later too.

Doc: Got any market size projections?

Jim: Most of the projections are for generic “Internet appliances” which conceivably covers a lot of ground. I look at the Arbitron data on Internet radio usage and see that 11 million listeners a month in the U.S. alone is a good market to go after. Too early to say how our numbers will go.

Doc: Will the U.S. finally regain market leadership at the Networked edge of what we've been calling “consumer electronics?”

Jim: I think so. But it will have an international flavor since companies like THOMSON/RCA (who announced they will be shipping a Kerbango powered Internet radio) are thoroughly multinational.

Doc: What we're sensing here at Linux Journal is that there is finally a chance that previously non-communicating devices in the home will become Net native and start relating at least with their owners, if not with each other—and that XML-based Instant Messaging will lead the way. Kerbango as a stand alone company didn't play a very big potential role in this scenario; but perhaps Kerbango as the household appliance brand of 3Com could play a huge role.

Jim: Hope so! We view it more as “building a better radio” rather than “building an Internet appliance”. Maybe just semantics, but it makes sense to us.

Doc: We realize this is blue-sky stuff at this point, but being part of 3Com does open the sky a bit. Or maybe the opposite. 3Com has a fine football stadium, but their mass market presence beyond that hasn't exactly been obvious. Some companies are born to brand and promote and make people want their cool stuff. Is 3Com ready to be the next Sony?

Jim: As we like to say at Kerbango, Stay Tuned!