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CES '09: Flycast's Cd-Quality Radio for Mobile

By - Source: Tom's Hardware US | B 3 comments

Flycast displayed its mobile application at CES '09, showing how its application streams satellite-radio quality music and talk radio to devices such as the iPhone, Blackberry and more.

The Flycast application is probably the first of its kind, streaming CD-quality music to mobile devices no matter where consumer may be. The application actually lives up to its promise, streaming impressive, crisp music that would otherwise be stored on a SD card or played via a CD player. Originally called FlyTunes, the PC/Mac web application first debuted last year as a digital music service for Apple's iPhone, iPod Touch (and other portable media players and cell phones). Later FlyTunes changed into FlyCast and migrated into an actual downloadable application for Apple's iPhone back in September. The company announced on October 21 that the FlyCast application was available for Blackberry devices, and during CES '09, the Android version made its robotic debut.

FlyCast actually streams both Shoutcast stations and proprietary stations, offering over 1200 channels to choose from, ranging from talk radio, to country, to top 40, to classical. The application's major selling point is that it's actually free; consumers need only some type of data plan to handle the load of data transferred. Delivering CD-quality music for free is actually quite surprising, and brings up many questions on just how FlyCast can even survive.

But it's simple: the service generates revenue through ads streamed within the application.

"FlyCast is offered free because it's our goal to have the largest possible audience listening to our member stations," FlyCast VP of Marketing Roy Smith told Tom's Hardware. "We are the very first company to perfect the ability to deliver web-style targeted advertising to a "broadcast" audience. We do this by taking advantage of the fact that everyone who is listening has a unique IP address, and when we ask you for basic demographic information (age, sex, location), we now have the ability to serve you ads that "demographically" will appeal to you."

He goes on to explain the numerous benefits derived from the current advertising structure. For one, the consumer only views ads that may be of interest; a 19 year old girl will never hear a Viagra ad. FlyCast will only average around 2 to 3 minutes of audio advertising when implemented later on down the road (there are no commercials at the moment); terrestrial radio averages 15 minutes of ads per hour. FlyCast also displays graphic ads while playing music, generally icons depicting the current song that will lead users, when clicked, to Amazon to purchase the desired song.

"In fact, with our average user listening for 45 minutes per session, we have the opportunity to display thousands of graphic ads per session," he added. "Of course, most people don't look at their phone or iPod while listening, so these ads are far less valuable from an advertiser standpoint, but still worthwhile." In some ways that is correct, but when consumers listen to a good song and view the information displayed on-screen, that's a buck in the music industry's pocket if the listener clicks through and purchases the song online.

According to Smith, FlyCast will actually help save both the recording industry and the radio industry. "The music played on all of our stations generates royalties that the stations pay to RIAA and ultimately a tiny percentage of that actually gets back to the original artists," he said. "In general, the terrestrial radio world has been slumping and Internet broadcasters have never been able to monetize their streams because they lack that local advertising component. FlyCast solves these problems, and this is why we have been able to sign up heavyweight broadcasters like Entercom (117 stations, most are top station in their market)."

Flycast is actually considered as a network of broadcasters, serving as the "middleman" between "tens of thousands" of stations and the mobile listener. This allows the company to offer a "broadcaster-agnostic" experience that tailors to the listener's tastes. However, the applications biggest feature is its ability to allow the mobile listener to move on to the next song, or rewind and listen a track previously played. This is accomplished by buffering the feed into the device's internal memory (aka "StreamSlip"), however the playback process isn't exactly perfect.

In fact, the Blackbery version used for this article experienced a few problems that popped up when listening to stations online. Although Verizon offers an EVDO wireless data connection, FlyCast experienced dropouts after the initial buffering. At times, stations dropped out altogether, and some radio stations wouldn't connect at all. According to a PR, FlyCast's "StreamSlip" allows users to listen to a station even during extended periods without a connection.

"FlyCast is a streaming application, so we are highly dependent on the quality of the connection," Smith explained when asked about dropouts. "We've got a number of magic tools to mitigate that dependency, but eventually it all comes down to connection quality."

Smith goes on to offer an example, saying that when users connect, the FlyCast servers will feed the device data much faster than the stream requires in order to build up a buffer of music in the device. "So if you lose connection for a moment, the music won't drop. You can see this in the green "Buffered" indicator on the play screen. If your connection is so poor that the server can never buffer ahead, then you will experience drops like the ones mentioned," he said.

The application actually features a "Bandwidth Tester" so users can see what quality level their carrier is delivering. According to Smith, every phone-based radio player faces the exact same challenges FlyCast experiences. "This is not a "FlyCast" issue," he added.

But as the quality of high-speed services increases on a rapid scale, today's bad connections may be great ones tomorrow, depending on when carriers update their towers. He also suggested that those consumers experiencing problems--even when using an EVDO or 3G service--might want to try the lower-bandwidth stations (Standard Quality).

So why not just store a larger buffer on the device's SD card? Smith thinks it's a bad idea. "While storing it on a SD card seems to be a small technical advancement, it is a giant leap when you consider copyright and royalty issues. It puts your application into an entirely different category - once the user has access to the stored information, the door is open for commercial removal and for the user to "disaggregate" the radio program. He can use an editor to cut out the songs he wants, make a playlist of those songs, and throw away the radio ID, commercials, and anything else. There is no way we'd have our partnerships with the dozens of terrestrial and Internet broadcasters if we allowed that sort of thing," Smith said.

Apparently most smartphones feature enough memory to buffer 15 minutes of data or more, enough so to cover random signal dropouts and keep the music flowing. Then again, if devices had an unlimited buffer size, consumers could "slurp up" 2 hours of music while connected on WiFi at home and then be able to listen anywhere regardless of wireless connectivity. "This would be analogous to a "TiVo for Radio," Smith explained."Our company actually did that as our first product 2 years ago, it was called "BroadClip". There are many issues with that technology model and so we switched to being a rebroadcaster a year ago as "FlyCast". We're betting that wireless connectivity and bandwidth is going to continue to improve worldwide."

Smith also added that other applications--especially Slacker--actually stores the buffer information on SD cards in order to keep the music from dropping out. On the other hand, this ability forces those companies to pay 10x higher broadcast royalties.

Currently FlyCast offers a large number of webcasters and terrestrial broadcasters including AccuRadio, Radio Paradise, 1.FM, 977 Music, SmoothJazz.com, 1Club.FM, radioIO, Entercom, Cox Radio, and more. The application is super-simple to navigate, automatically opening the guide and displaying a toolbar at the bottom of the screen. Users can search through the database using Artist and Keyword fields, and can also throw favorite stations into the Favorites section. The main screen also offers a linking banner to check the local weather, and another link taking users over to Fandango.com. FlyCast also utilizes the DoubleClick platform as its ad-serving solution provider.

FlyCast also offers a few other goodies, including the ability to listen to music in the background while using the mobile device for other functions. The application also supports playback through Bluetooth headsets. Like the FlyCast service, the application is free to download and use, however data charges still apply for users not on an unlimited plan. For devices with Wi-Fi connectivity, FlyCast is ideal for porting (and streaming) CD-quality music around the house and office.

Last week FlyCast announced that the application now supports Facebook, ACC+ and Windows Media support, enhancements to SongSkip and StreamShift, as well as partnering with AccuWeather.com, bringing "The World's Weather Authority" to handheld devices. FlyCast also released a Desktop Player Widget, based on Adobe's Air technology, for PC and Mac platforms. However, at the time of this writing, the Desktop Player Widget refused to work. Smith also noted that SongSkip doesn't appply to every radio station, that many terrestrial stations cannot be skipped due to licensing issues. Currently over 300 FlyCast stations feature song skipping.

It's safe to say that the FlyCast application is a step towards the future of streaming media to mobile devices, providing clear, CD-quality channels that gives satellite radio a run for its money. Albeit there is still room for improvement, the FlyCast application is both a useful tool and a much-needed program for any music lover. A world of music is not at the fingertips of mobile users everywhere, and it's all free.

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  • 1 Hide
    Anonymous , January 12, 2009 12:57 AM
    Roy Smith here; I have a few minor corrections to the article.

    1) Kevin's history was slightly off - FlyTunes launched in Jan 08 and supported the iPhone via a web application. We quickly became the #2 streaming application on the iPhone (second to YouTube). Our native iPhone application launched in September. We added the BlackBerry family in November, and in mid-december began testing our multi-platform PC desktop player. We announced support for Android last week at the CES show.

    2) the article says we re-transmit Shoutcast stations - It's true that some of our stations are Shoutcast stations, but nearly half of our stations are proprietary stations not available as Shoutcast stations. The stations offered on FlyCast represent a curated "cream of the crop" from the nearly 25,000 shoutcast stations, and 5000 terrestrial stations in the US.

    3) We offer unlimited song skipping for stations whose legal status allows them to offer skipping. There are over 300 stations in FlyCast in all genres that offer song skipping, but many terrestrial stations in particular cannot be skipped. This is a licensing issue that FlyCast respects, not a technical one.

    Roy Smith - FlyCast
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , January 12, 2009 6:03 AM
    Not really sure, I just download flycast this morning, and try some station, install Adobe AIR, install flycast, and...I do not think the quality is as good as the normal shoutcast. So I end up uninstall it again. I might try it again in the future, but at this point of time, I will have to pass.
  • 0 Hide
    exfileme , January 12, 2009 5:31 PM
    Thanks for the update. The article now shows the corrections supplied. However, the press release for the Blackberry application actually dates for October 21. I also didn't see any mentions of limitations regarding SongSkip, else those details would have been incorporated into the article. My apologies for any errors on my part.