February 14, 2005

StreetFire Sound Labs open-sources CD music

Author: Corinne McKay

"The open source community is the ultimate marketing focus group," says entrepreneur Stephen Street, whose latest venture, StreetFire Sound Labs, is taking on traditional stereo equipment manufacturers in the "living room war" over home media equipment. StreetFire's first product, the fully open source RBX1600 personal music server, debuted in the fourth quarter of 2004. The big difference between StreetFire's $750 server and proprietary systems: "We want people to hack our box," says Street. "You know the people hacking their Tivos and running Linux on their Xboxes? We love those guys!"

San Francisco-based StreetFire Sound Labs spent the past two years developing the RBX1600, a MontaVista Linux-powered digital audio server that allows users to control their music collections of up to 1,600 CDs from a Linux, Windows, or Macintosh computer. Using the RBX1600, users can browse, search, and sort CD title and track information, create playlists such as those used in MP3 libraries, and soon, stream CD audio via a home computer network. The device's integrated ports and interfaces allow and even encourage users to modify it for a variety of other uses. Promising "MP3 flexibility and CD audio quality," the RBX1600 is currently for sale exclusively through the StreetFire Web site.

The product is targeted at four categories of users: Linux and open source developers who can contribute to the project and qualify for developer discounts; Sony CD jukebox owners who want to catalog their collections, control playback, rip, and stream audio content; owners of large CD collections who want to avoid the fidelity loss associated with ripping and streaming; and home automation enthusiasts -- in Street's words, "the vanguard early adopters of the digital home."

Open source inside versus open source outside

Street caught the open source audio bug when remodeling his house, assuming that he could "put in a really cool stereo system, with all kind of zones and networking and stuff. Of course it didn't work out that way at all." Confronted with the restrictive model offered by existing companies in the home audio sector, Street, a software engineer and venture investor, decided to "bet the company" that audio enthusiasts like himself would embrace the open source paradigm. 300,000 lines of code later, the RBX1600 came to market. MontaVista provided a generic Linux build for the RBX1600, with StreetFire's own technical staff contributing the custom CPU card, device drivers, server application, client, and jukebox control software.

At $750, the RBX1600 is cheaper than some other high-end audio servers such as the Escient Fireball line at $2,500 and up, and the Audio Request Tera Pro line at $15,000 and up, and also offers free software upgrades to buyers. As StreetFire's media representative Mark Matossian comments, "How often do you get to download entirely new functions for your stereo?" StreetFire doesn't release sales figures or company financial data, but emphasizes that it's doing well enough to debut a second product in the third quarter of 2005.

While many home audio equipment companies use embedded Linux in their products, Street draws a distinction between using open source code and putting it out to the community. Street says that "even the newer technology products like Sonus, Roku, or Audio ReQuest may offer an API, but they are still fundamentally closed source." His insistence on open source extends from his product's embedded StreetRacer OS to the hardware side as well. In an effort to "take the open source philosophy farther into the product architecture level," the RBX1600 includes an RS-232 port, a USB port, a Compact Flash slot, and diagnostic and display headers, collectively known as HackPoints, to make it easier for users to modify the device or even repurpose it entirely.

MIT music library catches StreetFire

In the ongoing controversy over online file-trading, the RBX1600 might appear to be the recording industry's next reason to have apoplexy, but its creators insist that in fact, it encourages consumers to keep their audio collections legal. StreetFire's theory is that the RBX1600 makes it easier for audiophiles to keep their collections on CD instead of ripping them, and makes it easier and cheaper for large installations such as radio stations to manage huge CD collections on inexpensive consumer-quality CD jukeboxes.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Library Access to Music Project recently proved this theory to be correct after receiving the first 10 production units of the RBX1600 as a donation. LAMP, which allows MIT students and faculty to legally access an electronic music library anywhere on campus via the university's cable television system, ran into legal difficulties after purchasing 48,000 MP3 files from a company that misrepresented its rights to those songs. After deciding to re-open with an all-CD music library, the project's coordinators calculated that the cost of using computer CD-ROM jukeboxes for its 4,000 volume collection would be about $25 per CD, or $100,000 in total. To the project's knowledge, there wasn't a way to link a reasonably priced consumer-quality jukebox to a computer until StreetFire offered the RBX1600. By using the RBX1600 to control off-the-shelf Sony CD jukeboxes, the LAMP project estimates that it has decreased its per-CD cost of operation to between $.90 and $2.40 per disk, and ensured that its music collection remains legal.

Free: a sustainable price?

No doubt, the RBX1600 is an open source dream, and has even been dubbed "one of the most hacker-friendly products ever shipped" by Linuxdevices.com. But is giving away its source code a viable business model?

Street says, "We build software integrated with hardware, but we sell hardware. I ascribe to the adage that the software sells the hardware. Or in IBM's case, the software sells customization services."

When asked if he's worried that the big names in home audio will clone his products or compete head-to-head with the RBX1600, Street says, "I'm not so worried about the big guys. We've focused the company on rapid product innovation, with a responsive open source software engine, to power an ecosystem of upcoming StreetFire products. It's all about bringing cool stuff to market quickly, then releasing the software under the GPL so that the community can innovate on the platform. Big companies simply can't do that. It's against their DNA."

StreetFire also lures potential buyers with features such as a purchase discount for those who contribute code, and a section on its Web site that allows the technically minded user to go deeper into the workings of the RBX1600.

After two years spent in the product development phase, StreetFire's coders have been joined by "people taking care of marketing, channel development, and fulfilling orders that come in over the Web site. It's extraordinarily gratifying to get past a first product launch and to have customers to talk with."

In the future, Street sees StreetFire going even further in the open source direction. Currently paying a per-unit royalty fee to license the IBM Java Virtual Machine (JVM), StreetFire would like to be "completely free of these encumbrances and expenses" in future products.

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