For this week’s Engadget Interview, veteran journalist J.D. Lasica spoke with Dave Ulmer, director of marketing for Motorola Media Solutions about Motorola’s upcoming release of iRadio and how the technology may forever change how we listen to radio. Oh, and no satellites involved.
Shine that spotlight on the big picture, would you? Why is iRadio a big deal?
Sure. Well, iRadio is rather unique for Motorola in that it’s not a piece of hardware but a music service. It enables a consumer to have their choice of hundreds of channels of commercial-free radio and talk and their MP3 collection wherever they happen to be – whether at home, on the go or in their car.
The car is the focus for us because that’s where the majority of music listening occurs – while they’re in the car stuck in traffic someplace. We emerged from Motorola’s Seamless Mobility initiative, which was designed to connect the big three domains of Motorola: the car, the phone, the home network. Our focus has been on music and moving on into video in the future.
So people will be able to subscribe to your service and take it with them anywhere they go?
Correct. It’s a service that will involve an application that will reside on your phone and on your PC. Your phone will be constantly refilled with content. The initial phone — we haven’t announced the model yet — will be capable of holding about 10 hours of music and talk at a time, and you’ll be able to refill that at night in a USB charger dock to retrieve content over the Internet. Throughout the day it will be getting updates over the air. That will involve hundreds of channels of music from almost any genre, so you can really personalize the kind of music that you like to listen to.
Between the music you like to discover and the music you own, it will be a combination of the benefits of both satellite radio and an MP3 player but it’s on your phone. We added this unique approach to be able to play that music in your car, knowing that you’re probably not going to want to hold your phone up to your ear to hear all of this.
And how did you solve that problem?
Solutions till now have been less than optimal, or as our marketing people here say, they suck. You’ve had to get a bunch of wires, plug something into your cigarette lighter and something into a device — all of that results in lower-quality audio and a clumsy way to change channels.
So we invented something new called a wireless audio car adapter. It’s a small little box, about the size of a deck of cards, that plugs into the back of your radio. It pretends it’s a CD changer, so the radio doesn’t know what’s going on, and we’ve created a sort of Babelfish translator from Hitchhiker’s Guide that can translate between radio speak and into phone speak or iRadio talk which broadcasts over Bluetooth.
So all you do when you get into your car is you sit down with the phone in your pocket and it’s taken over your radio. When you turn on your radio, it’s actually conversing in two-directional Bluetooth. To a user, it feels a lot like magic. You turn on your radio and you get the channels you want to listen to.
For any Bluetooth virgins out there, what is it?
It’s a low-cost, low-energy wireless technology. Virtually any cell phone today is Bluetooth-enabled, as well as any new PC.
What’s on your iRadio?
In my case, my button No. 1 is commercial-free Southern rock, in very high digital quality. I switch over to channel 2, 3, 4 and it’s playing my selection of radio stations as well as my own MP3 files. You can go forward or back through your collection, pause, rewind. The radio stations play like regular radio files, with the one difference that you can pause in the middle of a radio song and resume. If a phone call comes in, it will automatically pause your content.
Who installs the box in the back of your car — a professional, your car dealer?
Depends on the person. If you can’t pull your radio out, then no. If you can, then it’s a very, very simple install. To help that out, we’ve set up a nationwide network of installers — the same people who install satellite radio and work for the major retail chains.
iRadio is compatible with what percentage of car radios?
It’s somewhere over 80 percent.
And we’re not limited to cars.
For your home, it’s an even easier solution. No dashboard. Last week we announced upcoming audio adapters for your home. When you get home, your phone can talk to your home stereo connected to the adapter through RCA jacks, again using Bluetooth.
Let’s talk content. You have 10 hours of material you can download from the Net, plus additional music stations that stream over your mobile phone?
The content that is coming from the Net is from pre-existing partnerships that we’ve established with major content providers. So we’re not just opening up wholesale recording of anything you want off the Internet, and we haven’t yet announced who they are, but they’re very big names involved with delivering Webcasting and music services over the Web today. Plus, whatever audio files or MP3s you want to include as well.
I love podcasts. All I have to do then is subscribe to a podcast, download it to my machine and it’ll play on my radio even though they’re not a Motorola partner?
Correct. Any files you have on your machine today that are MP3, WMA, AAC, depending on the phone.
OK, that’s the Internet/PC half. How does the radio half work?
As you know, most of the music you hear on the radio dial is already pre-recorded. It may have been recorded a day or week ago. Even the DJs aren’t as live as they once were. We made arrangements with online services that have radio Webcasts and are basically caching those programs at night, and then storing them in a buffer on your phone, and then streaming them to you when you’re in your car over Bluetooth.
For most content, having that five- or six-hour delay doesn’t matter so much. There is content where it does matter: breaking news, traffic, weather and sports. For hot content, we take that over the cellular network and update that in your phone throughout the day periodically. So when you’re driving home at night you’re getting news and traffic updates from several minutes ago rather than several hours ago.
And you don’t know it’s happening.
There’s no interaction required on the consumer’s part. You don’t have to hit buttons or commands of any sort.
This only works with certain wireless carriers?
There’s nothing technical that prevents it from working with any wireless service. The phone has to have Bluetooth, it has to have storage — we’re using 256MB and there are phones coming with much, much more than that. If a phone meets those criteria, our service can go in and make it work, regardless of whether it’s GSM or CDMA or what have you.
Any date for launch?
What about price?
We have some estimates. It really depends on what the carrier and the content provider agree upon. We believe it’s going to wind up in the $5 to $7 per month range per consumer. It’s not backward-compatible, but we’re building this into as many phones as we can as quickly as we can, so add in the cost of a mid-tier cell phone. The wireless audio adapter I mentioned will probably run $50 to $75.
You’re not targeting just the high-end crowd, then?
It’s for the masses, absolutely. The cost will come down pretty quickly over time. Motorola works quite closely with all the major auto manufacturers and we’re looking forward to that day when you don’t have to install anything to make this work. Most new cars will be coming with Bluetooth and wi-fi in the future. I suspect in three years we’ll start to see strong penetration of Bluetooth in the vehicles.
How do iPods play into this trend? Is this an iPod killer?
On the contrary, we have a very good relationship with Apple, and we’re going to have phones coming, in partnership with Apple, that will play iTunes files. And wouldn’t it be a good thing to be able to play and control those tracks from your car radio rather than from your device?
I really don’t see this as an iPod killer, it’s an iPod enhancer. In fact, if an iPod had Bluetooth with a little snippet of code from us, it would be able to be played on your car stereo and your home stereo and controlled on your stereo.
It’s almost more of an AM-FM killer.
Other than my local PBS station here, I never listen to radio. What’s going on? People are abandoning commercial radio because they want what they want?
I think you nailed it. Over the past 10 years, AM-FM has really gone downhill. It’s an increase in commercials and a decrease in selection. The personalized, genre-specific stations in almost all the major markets have disappeared, because the major advertisers pay for adult contemporary. Your slow jazz station is probably not there anymore.
Now there’s this wealth of ability to get your songs out and address this personalized audience out on the Internet. The problem is you’ve got 800 million car stereos worldwide, and only 20 million people listening to music on the Internet because you have to be stuck in your office or living room to listen to Internet radio.
So people are popping in their CDs but they’re getting frustrated that they can’t carry in their MP3 files. There’s a surge of interest in satellite radio, but still relatively small numbers — there’s a barrier to entry there. And there’s a tremendous desire to listen to … not quite personalized channels but channels of music that you like.
So here’s where playlists enter the picture, too.
Right. People don’t want to get too active and say I want to hear this song followed by that song. They don’t want to program, they still want to discover music they haven’t heard before.
One of my favorite stations is my Angry Woman channel. It crosses decades and genres. I’ve got some Avril Lavigne, some Blondie, Janis Joplin, Alanis Morissette. There’s jogging music, workout music — next we’ll see an I Just Broke Up radio station. Music that fits your tastes for that moment.
We’ve added one kinda cool feature. You can hold down a preset button on the radio and add that song to your wish list that’ll appear on your PC and your phone.
So how do you buy the song?
It depends on who’s your music provider. If you’re a Napster subscriber it’s going to be a WMA file. If you’re buying from iTunes it’ll be an AAC file. And then we’ll throw it into your PC and phone.
What else is coming?
One cool thing coming in Q3 are the Bluetooth headsets, where you can have a phone or MP3 player with Bluetooth. You definitely can appreciate that when you’re on the treadmill.
So this is about much more than the car.
We think so. Whenever you get out of your car, it automatically pauses the player and the next time I hit play on my phone, my phone turns into my portable player.
With a loss of audio fidelity, no doubt.
Up to this point, that has been true. But I have seen the future. I’ve seen phones with some amazing speakers on them — 3D sound with bass transducers throbbing in your hand, stereo speakers. You’ll see those later this year.
Where do you see this all going?
Worldwide, you look at 800 million car radios and last year 683 million cell phones sold — that doesn’t compare to something that sold 3 or 4 million copies.
Like satellite radio.
Satellite radio is a great service for the high end — high price, high installation, limited flexibility. A very cool service, but available only to the upper echelon. We really see this as something that’s going to be supplied on the phones and quickly inside the cars and everybody can say I want those benefits for six or seven bucks a month and an additional device.
Will you be able to get your satellite stations on iRadio?
Well, XM and Sirius are content companies more than they are hardware companies. We can certainly deliver XM and Sirius content to your home, your phone, your car, if they wanted to. We’re creating the infrastructure, the pipes, to give anyone with content access to those consumers in those domains at very low cost.
Apart from satellite, there’s only so much music listening you can do on your PC, and those 20 million people who listen to Internet radio aren’t going back to commercial radio when they get in their car.
How does iRadio fit into the vision of a celestial jukebox?
I’ve been talking jukebox in the sky for the past seven years. There’s a lot of technology needed to pull all this off. I’m hoping to see the celestial phone service in the sky that will always give you a connection and clarity on every phone call I make. We’re still a ways away from being able to stream music flawlessly over the air no matter where you are.
What we’re doing is actually a step in that direction, where we’re doing cache and forward with the bulk of content, and streaming content that makes sense to stream. In effect, you can be a mile underground, you can be on a subway or a train and still get crystal clear reception because it’s been cached and forwarded to your phone.
I think what we’ll find is that the celestial jukebox in the sky is a bit of a misnomer. It’s a celestial jukebox that’s served up from the sky but it’s actually in your phone, in your car, in your pocket, in your home — bits and pieces of it reside in different locations in your life and they’re bounced around to you no matter where you might be.
So you won’t have instant access to all the world’s music?
No, it’ll be a subset. The bulk of your content will always be on a server somewhere. It might be in your home or in an online service. But how big of a subset is big enough? When phones and car radios roll out in the days ahead with 20 gigabytes of storage, that’s a lot.
So we’re going to soon see cars coming off the assembly lines with hard drives under the hood?
I have seen cars in the planning stages that have hard drives, yes.
Then that’s the ultimate mobile device — one you can drive 60 mph.
That’s right. The world’s largest MP3 player.
JD Lasica is a startup founder, thriller author and journalist with a special interest in VR, AR and AI. Follow him on Twitter at