For this week’s Engadget Interview, veteran journalist J.D. Lasica bumped into Paul Griffin, CEO of Griffin Technology, at the Portable Media Expo and Podcasting Conference in Ontario, Calif., on Friday. The self-effacing Griffin discusses the panoply of products his company puts out for gadget lovers, Apple’s dominance in the portable music market, and what’s ahead for Griffin in the peripherals space.
How long ago did you found your company?
We started 13 years ago.
What products did you start out focusing on?
We started off making video adapters and later on started making serial adapters. We’ve been focused since the early days on making connectivity products, and later on we began making stand-alone products or peripherals that didn’t rely on just a single product but on things like a USB bus.
Where are your headquarters? How many employees?
We’re in Nashville, Tenn., and we have 60 to 70 employees now. About half our employees are in R&D, including me. I don’t even get involved in sales or marketing distribution areas.
Whenever I think of Griffin I think of an entire buffet of products. But do you have one main product line?
There are several products I really love that we did for the iPod. We did the iTrip and the iTalk and the SmartDeck, and we have a couple of new variations that are really interesting. These are all products that in one way or another were fairly novel and different ideas. Our hearts are really into it.
Let’s run them down. Start with the iTrip.
At the time it was rather clever. We used audio tones to send the signal to the iTrip to tell it what station to broadcast on. At this point it sounds somewhat clunky or dated, but I don’t think anyone had done it up to that time. It made for a really inexpensive and very small device with a ground-breaking LCD form factor.
What about iTalk?
In my opinion, it has stunning design, and it works so much better than any of the other products in the marketplace. It’s got automatic gain [volume] control and a small but not-so-bad speaker that allows you to hear the audio play back that you’ve imported. It’s just a great-looking device.
Haven’t tried it so can’t grill you on it. How about iFM.
That’s a product everyone has always wanted for the iPod: an FM receiver. We announced four years ago: We designed it, we built it, we built it, but I don’t think our thought process around it was very good. We built something almost as big as an iPod, and it was kind of crazy. Rather than ship it and embarrass everybody, we canceled it.
A few years later we finally got around to doing it right, in my opinion. It’s sleek and small and feels good in your hand, and has a lot of functionality. It’s not just an FM receiver but also a remote control and a voice recorder and radio recorder. You can be listening to the radio, hear a song you like, and save it to your iPod, and play it back later or listen to it on your computer.
Any word from the RIAA or music industry about that?
People have always been able to record music and radio since the days of cassette tape recorders. It’s not a very high-resolution recording, so I don’t think anyone will have any problem with it. Recording from FM radio has generally not been something the industry has cared about a lot.
It’s not digital radio, then.
Any products in the work for that?
It’s too early.
How’s the RadioShark doing?
The RadioShark was one of those products we really wanted to build for ourselves. I wanted it because I listen to talk radio — you come in during the middle of something and you miss something you want to hear again. And so the product I wanted was to be able to hear something you just missed, or to record the whole show and play it back on your iPod or your computer later on. That’s what it does, and we get a lot of consumers give us compliments on it.
How do they use it mostly?
For recording “Car Talk” on NPR and other shows. A little bit of time-shifting, people who missed something on the radio and want to go back and hear it.
It’s like TiVo for radio.
It’s exactly like TiVo for radio, with the scheduled recording and with the time-shifting and replay.
Any plans to add new features and functionalities to it?
Tagging or naming some of the songs would be a feature we’ll add at some point down the road. Always eager to hear other suggestions from your readers as well.
What’s the story behind SmartDeck?
We looked at building another cassette adapter and decided we didn’t want to do that. So what we came up with was the SmartDeck. It looks like an ordinary cassette adapter that you’d plug your iPod or mp3 player into and play music in your car, but it goes a couple of steps further. It lets you fast-forward and rewind your iPod from the cassette adapter. If you press fast-forward on the SmartDeck, your iPod will skip to the next song. If you press rewind, it’ll go to the previous song. If you press pause or play, it’ll do that. This allows the iPod to go to sleep and shut down when you shut your car engine, without you having to think about turning anything off. It’ll wake up the iPod when you start your car again.
It also has smart sound, an automatic gain control thing, which automatically adjusts the volume to the optimal level. That’s a feature I don’t think you’ve seen anywhere in a peripheral for audio devices before.
How are people using the Griffin AirClick?
Most people use the USB version with iTunes. With iTunes, it does volume up, volume down, next and previous track, play and pause. We have another version of the AirClick that works with iPods, and it’s for transport controls, the basic play, pause, fast-forward and volume up and down.
It’s also a great tool for PowerPoint and Keynote presentations, and probably works better with that than anything else. You don’t have to aim it because it’s RF, and the range is very good, and it’s small enough to fit comfortably in your hand.
About half your products revolve around the iPod universe now.
Yeah, we’re spending about 40 percent of our R&D on iPod products. I think that’s a short-term situation because the iPod’s very popular, and there’s a big rush to get new products out. In the long run I’m sure we’ll spend less on that.
So you said in today’s session that in the short term, no one is going to knock off the iPod, even if they do knockoffs.
I think Apple has done too many things too well. I see products coming out with the same features as the iPod, with maybe not as good software. That’s not good enough, they have to do something groundbreaking and earth-shattering, and I don’t see that coming from anyone else right now. It’s just not enough to knock them off.
Any new products coming out for the holidays?
We just got our iTrip 30-pin out. It’s an FM transmitter for the iPod. It attaches to the bottom of the iPod because both the new iPod models — the fifth generation and the iPod Nano both have the 30-pin connector now. So it works really well and it’s just out.
What’s coming down the road for Griffin?
We’ve got a couple of new products that I’m really excited about for early 2006. The one we’ve shown publicly here is the iTrip for Nano, which we thought was really clever. We’re using the iPod screen to display information in a way it really wasn’t designed to do. It was designed to pop a logo up when you plug it into a dock. We’re displaying station information, and it makes for a much smaller, cleaner peripheral.
Due out by Christmas?
Maybe. It should be out sometime in December.
Is that it?
Yeah. Isn’t it sexy? You can do really crazy stuff like Preferences, More Preferences, More Preferences, information screen. Nobody has ever used an iPod screen this way. It bitmaps screens to the iPod through a serial connector from the micro-controller. It’s just crazy.
So you just place your Nano into this dock?
That’s it! When you plug it in, it initially shows you what station you’re on. We really had fun coming up with this. The only way to do it was to use the iPod screen. You’re not supposed to do this, since it was just to show logos, but we figured out how to change it on the fly and made it work.
Apple won’t mind?
We weren’t stupid enough to ask beforehand. You can ask forgiveness, you just don’t want to ask permission. They’re happy, they’re gonna love it. If we had asked ahead of time, I’m sure they would have said no. But they’ve seen it and said, Oh, that’s so cool. If we’d asked if we could do it, though, I’m sure we would’ve gotten a different answer.