Interview with Andrew Leyden—CEO of PenguinRadio
One of the coolest Internet appliances being developed comes from PenguinRadio. The company was founded by Andrew Leyden and is working toward providing the world with an Internet-based car radio that will allow access to thousands of stations—from anywhere in the world. Imagine listening to your favorite radio station from Madrid (if you have one) while driving away from the latest black tie affair at the Gates mansion, outside of Seattle. This will be possible, eventually, thanks to PenguinRadio.
While they are still in the development and venture capital-raising stages, the prospects are exciting. By partnering with wireless communications developer Ineva.com, PenguinRadio may be able to differentiate itself from Kerbango, its nearest competitor. Ellipso, Inc., called a “sister company” by Ineva, will provide the satellite technology that makes listening to any station, anywhere, possible. Ellipso, as mentioned on their web site, has three patents covering their “elliptical orbit and deployment characteristics”. They have found a way to link satellites high above the earth in order to provide uninterrupted service nearly anywhere in the world.
I talked with PenguinRadio CEO Andrew Leyden about the latest developments at PenguinRadio.
Jason: Why Linux?
Andrew: There was never a debate as to the operating system for the PenguinRadio. Not only did Linux meet our needs technically (scalable, stable, inexpensive) but it also fit our ideals philosophically. We believe very strongly in working with others to develop new products that are going to bring the Internet (and Linux) to more people.
Jason: How has Linux worked so far? What problems have you encountered?
Andrew: When we first started developing our box, we were occasionally stumped by hardware conflicts and a lack of drivers for certain parts of the radio, but the Linux community has proven to be a great resource for us in helping us develop this product. We've e-mailed and chatted with people all over the world who have offered suggestions, given guidance and pointed us to the right way to make a device like this become a reality.
One problem that has yet to be overcome is the view (in some quarters) that Linux is little better than shareware. We've demonstrated this not to be the case, but some of those with money and software necessary to make a box like this work are not totally committed to the idea of Linux. They'd like to see machines work on more established systems backed up by “professional” (i.e., paid) support.
Jason: You said that when first developing with Linux “we were occasionally stumped by hardware conflicts...” Could you provide an example?
Andrew: Some of the less expensive hardware we were experimenting with had poorly supported sound chips, making it difficult to produce glitch-free audio output at the $200 price point.
Jason: What operating system do you use at work/home?
Andrew: We've got a mishmash of machines around our offices and home. We use Macs for a lot of our web design work, Windows machines for some of our office functions, and Linux boxes to keep them all running straight. Our chief designer actually has a Linux box set up to maintain a web cam in his house so he can check up on his dogs while he's at work.
Jason: When is the product expected to be available to the public?
Andrew: Our goal remains sometime this summer or fall, but in order to make the device easy enough for my mother to use (i.e., she knows how to dial the phone) I have to spend more time making it easier to use.
People expect a radio to work every time they turn it on. Computers can crash and have blue screens of death, but a radio is something that you turn on and it works. If it doesn't, you throw it out and get a new one. We need to meet this expectation of a 100% fool proof device, which is a bit difficult.
Jason: What is the projected price range?
Andrew: We feel we can get these devices out in the $200-$250 U.S. price range.
This is what we consider the “one spouse” price point, i.e., one spouse can purchase without the permission of the other. Your mileage may vary on this...
Jason: What station would you listen to from, say, Cairns, Australia?
Andrew: We currently have about 50 Australian radio stations in our database, including a few from around Queensland, and are working to improve this number on a daily basis.
There's actually a very strong interest in a product like this in island nations like New Zealand, Australia and the U.K., where traditional radio has very real geographic limitations.
Jason: Could you please provide a bit of background information about yourself and your company?
Andrew: Most recently I served as Counsel to the Commerce Committee of the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. This is the committee of jurisdiction over the telecommunications network, the Internet and all commerce in the United States. I conducted a number of oversight matters into technology, and it was while working with the committee that I came up with the idea of the PenguinRadio.
I was spending some time writing a memo, playing a streaming media feed in the background when I ran into a problem many people have confronted: the computer could not handle the decoding and the other task at the same time. There were blips and beeps and delays. Initially I said, “buy a new computer that is more powerful”, but then it hit me, “no, go the other way. Make a streaming media device.” I did a bit of research into the sector and decided this would be a great device to have in my own house, regardless of whether or not I sold a million units. I left the committee about a year ago, raised an angel round from some interesting investors and recently closed on my first VC round from the Internet Partnership Group.
Jason: Will you be releasing any of your work to the Open Source community?
Andrew: We haven't figured out what is going to be released and what is to stay with us, but I'm pushing hard to be generous to the Open Source community as they have been so helpful with us. We already allow other web pages access to our portal of thousands of radio stations and plan to work with other device manufacturers to allow them access to the work we've been conducting.
Jason: What sort of help do you need from the Open Source community, in terms of development work and so on?
Andrew: Comments, suggestions, rants, raves. Whatever they feel might be helpful, or any problems they've encountered in working on embedded systems are greatly appreciated.
Jason: Which Linux kernel are you using?
Andrew: We've been experimenting mostly with the 2.2 series.
At this stage, we want to use a fairly modern kernel and we're not as concerned about the kernel size, since memory is cheap and getting cheaper all the time.
Jason: Have you released the source code to your Linux port?
Andrew: We don't mean to sound evasive, but the streaming audio landscape is evolving and changing so quickly that we're not ready to release anything at this point. Our work is mostly in writing customized applications, so there's nothing really tricky or unusual with the distribution that we'll use.
Jason: Is there a demo of the radio available, or are you still in the development stage?
Andrew: We have built some prototypes, but there's not an official demo unit.
Jason: Who would you identify as your main competition?
Andrew: As far as the hardware arena is concerned, the company formerly known as Kerbango comes to mind. But that's just one dimension of PenguinRadio. We've partnered with Ineva.com to deliver Internet radio just about anywhere a satellite signal can be received. PenguinRadio is also geared towards the wireless community, as we deliver the sounds of the Internet via our stripped-down portal, phoneradio.com.
Jason: Thank you for your time, and best of luck.