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Broadband for free: radio kills the digital stars

The full import of Psion's cunning plan...

Analysis It's Broadcasting House, ancestral home of the British Broadcasting Corporation, and at Psion's Wavefinder launch a top level exec from the Beeb's new media operations is delivering an extended commercial for the Corporation's digital radio efforts. A contra deal typical of little Psion, known for its addiction to leveraging, one wonders? But one swiftly forgives, as Mr BBC New Media's boastful intro rapidly degenerates into an unintentionally amusing whine.

The BBC has chucked skiploads of money at digital radio (and indeed at the Web), and this altuism has been repaid by wicked hardware vendors conspicuously failing to build affordable receivers. So thank goodness for Psion's happening alonog with a £299 unit and a cunning plan to make it as common a PC accessory as scanner, printer, digital camera, all of the stuff you get in the Big Bundle from the retailers these days. "Here, take Broadcasting House, just get it into production quick!"

"Revolutionary" products are announced daily in the IT business, but Psion's latest, the Wavefinder, could genuinely merit the tag on a couple of fronts. The price is only a temporary breakthrough, because receivers from the consumer electronics outfits will ultimately match and then beat it, but the association with PCs is a smart notion, as is the bundling approach. The Wavefinder, a sort of 'soap on a rope' affair you stick to the wall behind your PC, is bigger than you expected from the pictures, but there are obvious advantages for Psion in presenting it with a simple USB connection that allows it to get display, control and power from the PC 'for free.' And when it ships in the UK in two weeks time it will be free, for people buying the right PCs from retail giant Dixons/PC World. That's a tempting bundle that should help Psion punch above its weight, and steal a march on Japan's electronics giants.

The broader revolutions, however, are more easily grasped when you consider what digital radio is, and the implications of it becoming a ubiquitous PC peripheral. Digital radio currently exists as high quality, multi-channel audio broadcasting (in Europe - the US seems to be two years behind, with an inferior system, again), but although that's cool, start thinking of digital radio as the ability to throw miscellaneous free broadband stuff at computer users everywhere and you see rather wider potential.

It can do pictures, hook into Web sites, it can broadcast Web sites. You can be listening to a song, decide you like it, find out the name of the band then just click through to a Web site to buy the CD. Or - the fatal, Napster-style flaw in the thinking of people who think they'll make money out of this - you can just record it directly into MP3 format. Or look at it from the point of view of the wireless network operators who've just coughed up tens of billions for their 3G licences.

Their thinking, as far as broadband wireless is concerned, has been that they'll be able to use their vast future bandwidth for music, video, multimedia, and that they'll be able to recoup their investment by charging for this. So imagine their surprise in recent months when they've 'discovered' a bunch of broadband wireless franchises that were sold for a song, and that are now in the hands of broadcast operations who're familiar with the concept of dishing out content for free.

One obvious difference between digital radio and 3G broadband, of course, is that digital radio is only one way. But connected to a computer, that doesn't necessarily make it less interactive. PCs have a return pipe in the shape of a landline Internet connection these days, and if you look at the current generation of satellite data offerings, they're essentially broadcast systems with a return pipe in the shape of, er, a landline Internet connection.

There's not a lot of obvious difference, when you think about it. Wavefinder-like devices are already smaller and simpler to set up than satellite dishes, and the networks (in Europe) have already been deployed to a reasonable level. 3G wireless, on the other hand, has a major build-out hill to climb, and won't have spare capacity for broadband/broadcast purposes for quite a few years yet. Digital radio receivers aren't yet portable, but they will be in a couple of years. Right now there's a certain obvious co-existence with portable MP3 players, but when they're portable they could in effect be a successor to the portable MP3 player.

Add the technology to a PDA or a smartphone, and you've got a seriously intriguing category-killer. Worried about those high 3G download bills? Well, just use digital radio broadcast and the 3G phone network for brief 'return pipe' sends. You can see why the mobile networks might be looking worried.

Nor is it obvious that the return pipe always going to be needed. Newspapers, god help them, have a tendency to busy about promoting their Web sites as interactive systems, which means getting the readers to stop being just readers, and start emailing, posting, voting and arguing instead. But a newspaper's really just a daily package of news that you buy in a single lump. so why not just get it via radio in a single lump instead? Why not update it through the day and broadcast it as a series of continually updated lumps, just like good old non-interactive radio? How much of Web data do you reckon would be receptive to this kind of approach, with users becoming readers in exchange for super-fast access?

Ah, but how would you monitor readership, and how would the advertisers be able to measure the success of their ads? That's right, it threatens Web economics and Doubleclick et al as well - steam radio's revenge really is starting to look seriously interesting. ®

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