Hunting Penguins in the Desert: The CES Report
Over in one of the international halls, I met with three energetic Asian companies, Movain, Unication and MagicEyes, all of which not only use Linux extensively but are eager to talk about it. They were three among the Gang of Eleven.
Movain has multimedia content filtration systems, a cool color deficiency engine that corrects for partially color-blind people, and data management products for high speed PC backup over networks.
MagicEyes runs Linux on its multimedia SoC (system on a chip), MMSP (multimedia application processor) chip and vRender3D graphics application processor offerings--all targeted to the "convergence" space where TV, radio, telephony, PDAs and computing intersect. Yong Ho On, Sales and Marketing Group VP for MagicEyes, told me the company is looking for Linux experts. In fact, executives at all three companies told me there currently is a very competitive market for Linux talent all over the Far East.
Unication was showing a pile of products: a wireless set-top box, a wireless gateway and one item I want bad, a PDA that transmits at any frequency on the FM band. There's no shortage of little PDA-attachable FM transmitters that are switchable between four channels at the bottom end of the band (88.1, .3, .5 and .7) or that offer "seven selectable channels", but I haven't seen anything that can go on any FM channel other than the unit Belkin showed (the TuneCast II) at both Macworld and CES. At both shows, Belkin promised to start delivering the things "next month" (they're still not here). The Unication PDA is tunable up and down the dial, even among the even numbers to the right of the decimal point, which often are used outside the US.
Sometimes I call myself an "old radio engineer", but that's a stretch. Although it's true that the only code I know is Morse and that I once tended transmitters and other heavy hardware at radio stations, my interest in radio technology has been avocational since Linus was in grade school. Still, I always hold hope that broadcast engineering and consumer electronics eventually will pull their clues together and renew the golden age when AM was king and FM was challenging its empire.
Fat chance, right?
At CES, the residue of that golden age took the form of two small adjacent booths: one for C.Crane and one for Sangean. C.Crane is the best radio store in the world, while Sangean makes some of the world's best radios--I have two of them. I enjoyed talking deep radio trash with the people at both booths; Kevin Wang, the President of Sangean, was actually manning his company's booth at the time, all by himself. But, it was hard not to see the companies and their businesses as relics. All the action was at the Automotive expo in the North Hall, where the space was dominated by satellite radio and booming media systems in sharp-looking cars (the '63 Caddy convertible was my fave, but the one I want is the boxy Scion).
XM Satellite radio had the biggest booth, with Sirius close behind. Gear-wise, the two and only vendors in the space seemed to be pushing their offerings in the same two directions. One is localized data, for example, XM's "instant" traffic and weather offering for 16 major metros. The other direction is expanding from dashboards to living rooms, kitchens and the great outdoors. For that, XM and Delphi were showing off the SkiFi, a $99 receiver that's essentially a plug-in face plate for a car radio, a home stereo or a boom box. Sirius was showing off a cool Tivoli tabletop satellite radio that plays Sirius stations with all the handy digital readouts, as well as AM and FM. It was designed by Henry Kloss and resembles the excellent old KLH Model 8 radio.
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Nobody at either booth knew if Linux was involved in their systems; but at trade shows like this one, what sells isn't tech. It's girls. XM drew a long line of fans looking for autographs from Juli and Tiffany, the "seductive hosts" of Playboy's Night Calls show. Over at Swiss Audio, the biggest draw was the same miss featured in its huge booth displays. I didn't catch her name, but she patiently paused for photos with ogglers-by. I guess the she (or her agency) answered this ad.
Digital radio won't be coming at us only from the sky. Both the FCC and the consumer electronics industry want to see the terrestrial radio industry convert to digital as well. Ibiquity is the company behind the conditionally approved IBOC (in band, on channel) "HD radio" digital transmission system that eventually will be used on both the AM and FM bands. Licensing isn't cheap on the transmit side, and it's totally proprietary, having been developed (and, no doubt, patented) by a fleet of broadcasting's big boys. I knew at least one Ibiquity engineer had posted a question to the Linux Kernel mailing list, so I assumed some kind of penguin business was going on there; but nobody at the booth had a clue about Linux' involvement with the company's tech. They were able, however, to demonstrate AM and FM in both analog and digital form. The sonic difference on FM was apparent but far less dramatic than the difference on AM, where mass-market high-fidelity receivers haven't been manufactured for decades--but could be, if anybody still is interested.
The people over at Delphi (formerly GM's Delco division) went much deeper into the technologies they're developing, showing me the prototype chipsets and boards that will go into car radios in 2005-2006.
I really like the car radios Delphi makes and wanted to thank them for taking the trouble. Many of the radios they supply to GM cars, for example, actually have knobs with nice little click-detents for each channel on the dial, making them much easier to tune than any of the push-button alternatives in the aftermarket. It also was fun to listen to HD radio on the AM band, thanks to KNXT/840 in Las Vegas. HD radio has the capacity to display call letters and much more information on receivers. (So does RDS, but not as elegantly.)
There's plenty happening on the supply side. Harris and other transmission equipment suppliers already have HD gear on the market. Tim Posar, a Linux and open-source geek of high standing, as well as a veteran broadcast engineer, recently told me he'd fired up some HD gear at the transmitter of a public FM station near where I live in Santa Barbara. But there still are no production receivers out there, and the future offerings showcased at CES were mighty thin. Kenwood showed a few "HD ready" car receivers, which they announced one year earlier. But that was about it, not much mojo there.
When I asked around about how manufacturers might improve the quality of FM and AM chipsets, it was like I was asking Dell about about improving the quality of its floppy drives. I was told that chipsets had long since become ubiquitous standard parts and cost only pennies for the receiver manufacturers. So it's hard to imagine the Ibiquity chipsets getting cheap quickly, especially in the absence of awareness--much less volume demand. Meanwhile, the lo-fi qualities of AM radio chipsets have forced the whole band to do almost nothing but talk.
At this point in history, most of us who care about music are no longer getting it from radio anyway. We're getting it from one another or from on-line sources. The most popular portable entertainment systems today are MP3 players, as all those iPod billboards are glad to tell you. One big reason for their popularity is regulation. There's a lot of it around old-fashioned radio and nearly none of it around computers and MP3 players.
Here in the US, about 14,000 signals are wedged onto 95 FM and 116 AM channels, using modulation methods developed early in the last century. The capital costs of setting up and running stations are high. Ownership and content are regulated, though not as highly as elsewhere in the world. And approximately nobody outside the business thinks it's better than it was in its golden years, now long gone.
When I was a kid, I used to ride my bicycle down to the New Jersey Meadowlands and hang out with the old guys who ran the transmitters for New York's big AM radio stations. All but four of New York's AM stations still radiate from New Jersey, taking advantage of the high ground conductivity provided by the salty tidewater there. The old guys were true antenna gurus who worked where the rubber met the road. The patient ones taught me interesting stuff about phased array radiation patterns (produced by two or more towers), with lobes for maximizing coverage and nulls for protecting other stations. They compared the virtues of guyed and self-supporting towers, spoke reverentially of the great Blaw-Knox tower designs (like WOV/WADO's diamond-shaped landmark, which came down a few years ago) and lamented technical compromises, such as capacitive "hats", including the ones worn by WNEW's old towers. (From a plane I once got a nice picture of WBT's three diamond-shaped Blaw-Knox's before a hurricane damaged them a few years later. Thankfully, the replacements are just as pretty, if you're into this kind of thing.)
Back in those days, being a broadcast engineer was a worthy calling, full of black art and deep knowledge. Now it's antique. These days, the same kinds of kids hack their own computers, not somebody else's transmitters. Today, all those transmitters I used to visit are solid-state and run by computers anyway.
Meanwhile, the media environment continues to become increasingly infertile as Congress salts the land with content regulations. As I write this, the House of Representatives has passed the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, by a vote of 391-22. One of its unintended consequences is sure to be an acceleration in the shift of technology innovation away from broadcasting and over to the relatively free and unregulated Internet. (Like it hasn't happened already.)
Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal
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