Crowdsourced Wi-Fi network operator Fon wants you to turn up the music: Fon is set to launch a Kickstarter campaign for a new device dubbed Gramofon Tuesday that lets you beam Spotify to your stereo system while also helping you to share your Wi-Fi signal with the world. It’s a new twist on Fon’s original Wi-Fi sharing concept, and the company hopes that it will help to finally conquer the U.S. market.
Gramofon is a square box that has about the look and size of two jewelry gift boxes stacked on top of each other. It features two Ethernet ports as well as a line-out port to connect your stereo. Users can interact with the device either through mobile apps, or with a simple round button on top of the case, which is accompanied by a round LED that communicates basic status messages through changing colors. Kickstarter backers will be able to acquire the device for as little as $30, and it will go on sale for $50 later this year.
Many of these details will be familiar to Gigaom readers — I first reported about Gramofon last month when I stumbled across the device in some surprisingly revealing FCC filings. But last week, Fon COO Alex Puregger stopped by our office in San Francisco to demo the device and tell me a little more about what the device actually does, and how it fits into Fon’s strategy.How it works
Gramofon functions like any Fon router in that it shares a user’s internet connection through a separate public network, making sure that visitors won’t access files on your computer or slow down your network. At the same time, it also uses Wi-Fi as a kind of authenticator for social music consumption. Friends that come to your place can authenticate via Facebook, for example, and then automatically start to play music on your Gramofon, without the need to share Wi-Fi passwords or link their mobile devices with the music player.
Right now, Gramofon only supports Spotify as well as the web radio service Wah Wah, but Puregger told me that the company wants to add additional services in the coming months. Paying Spotify users can beam music straight from the service’s mobile app to a Gramofon, much in the same way that media is being cast with a Chromecast adapter (which means the music is being streamed straight from the cloud, and the phone can be turned off at any time without interrupting playback).
Gramofon is also building a dedicated control app to play Wah Wah, and Puregger told me that it wants to eventually add collaborative playback functionality, making it possible for users to queue up songs for a kind of real-world Turntable.fm listening party.
One feature notably amiss is the ability to play local content. There’s no USB port, and Puregger told me that there are no immediate plans to enable the playback of files stored on a computer or network-attached storage drive. “We don’t believe in that,” he said, adding that Gramofon would focus on cloud music services instead.Where Fon wants to go with it
Also missing is multi-room music playback, which would enable users to play the same music throughout their house. Puregger said that the company may enable this in a future version, but also added that it doesn’t really want to take on established whole-home audio players. “We don’t want to compete with Sonos at all,” he said. Instead, the plan is to focus on Wi-Fi sharing and other unique features.
Speaking of Wi-Fi: Barcelona-based Fon started 8 years ago with the idea of a community Wi-Fi network, giving users free wireless access in exchange for opening up their routers to strangers. The company has seen a lot of traction in countries where it partners with ISPs, and says it is now running close to 13 million hotspots worldwide. But in the U.S., Fon never really took off.
Gramofon is an attempt to change that, and also put a spotlight on other services that could be enabled through shared Wi-Fi. Much like the music router uses Wi-Fi for presence and Facebook for authentication to let you and your friends play music together, Fon could enable other services to offer shared experiences, be it in a connected home or a more communal space, said Puregger: “We see Wi-Fi as the connector.”
The peering deal between Netflix and Comcast seems to be paying off for consumers: The average speed of Netflix streams consumed by Comcast subscribers has increased by 65 percent over the last two months, according to Netflix’s most recent ISP Speed Index. In January, Comcast customers accessed Netflix with an average bit rate of 1.51 Mbps. By March, that rate was up to 2.5 Mbps.
This increase led to Comcast climbing the charts in Netflix’s monthly speed index, where the company is now fifth among the country’s big ISPs. Comcast still comes in behind Charter, Suddenlink, Cablevision and Cox, but is faster than Time Warner Cable, Verizon or AT&T.
Netflix entered a paid peering agreement with Comcast in February after previously resisting demands by internet providers to pay for peering. The agreement guarantees Netflix enough peering capacity to prevent slow-downs when its traffic enters Comcast’s network, but it also sets a precedent for content providers paying ISPs for their traffic.
Netflix subsequently called on the FCC to make peering a net neutrality issue and prevent ISPs from charging these kinds of peering fees, but the commission declined to take up the issue.
Correction: A previous version of this story said that the average speed for Comcast customers in January was 1.15 Mbps, when in fact it was 1.51 Mbps. We updated the story at 1:08 pm with the correct number.
What if you could pick up a printed newspaper, but instead of a handful of stories hand-picked by a secret cabal of senior editors in a dingy newsroom somewhere, it had pieces that were selected based on what was being shared — either by your social network or by users of Facebook, Twitter etc. as a whole? Would you read it? More importantly, would you pay for it?
You can’t buy one of those yet, but The Guardian (see disclosure below) is bringing an experimental print version it has been working on to the United States for the first time: a printed paper that is generated entirely — or almost entirely — by algorithms based on social-sharing activity and other user behavior by the paper’s readers. Is this a glimpse into the future of newspapers?
According to Digiday, the Guardian‘s offering — known as #Open001 — is being rolled out later this week. But you won’t be able to pick one up at the corner store: only 5,000 copies will be printed each month, and they are going to the offices of media and ad agencies. In other words, it’s as much a marketing effort at this point for the Guardian (which isn’t printed in the U.S.) as it is a publishing experiment.Robots write news — why not edit it as well?
As tiny an experiment as it is, however, the Guardian project raises some interesting questions. A paper produced by robots (or at least algorithms) isn’t all that different from tools like Paper.li or even the “Most Shared” feature that many newspapers have now on their websites. Sharing-analytics company NewsWhip recently put together a look at what front pages might look like if they were based on what people actually shared. But is that what we want from a newspaper?
The Guardian‘s latest project is based on a similar experiment it has been running for the past six months or so in Britain, one that generates a printed paper called “The Long Good Read,” made up of some of the best long-form content from the Guardian and its sister paper The Observer. It’s available for free once a week at the Guardian‘s public coffee shop in the London neighborhood of Shoreditch (a shop that is an interesting experiment in itself, as I’ve discussed before).
The Long Good Read started as a joint venture with The Newspaper Club, a company that prints small-run custom newspapers, and was based on work done by former Guardian developer Dan Catt as a side project — a way of automatically collecting the best reads from the paper for later reading, as either an RSS feed or a sharing feature similar to Longreads.
As the editor behind Long Good Reads explained in a blog post, the paper uses algorithms — including the Guardian‘s own in-house tool for tracking which stories are the most read and the most shared — and generates a list, which The Newspaper Club robot lays out in newspaper style. All the human editor does is check to see if any stories are out of date by the time it gets to the printing stage, and/or fiddle with the layout a bit. The whole process takes about an hour.
“Sometimes what the Guardian decides to put on its front page or home page matches what the users are reading, other times everyone seems to be focusing on something else, with twitter, facebook and other sites acting as a back channel. Editors are our first filter, the readers are our second.”
Obviously, neither the Long Good Reads project nor #Open001 are going to replace The Guardian or any other printed newspaper any time soon. One is a monthly publication and the other is weekly, and they are aimed at what — for now, at least — are fairly niche markets. Nevertheless, we clearly have the ability to print newspapers tailored to our interests. But should we?
The benefit of tools like Paper.li — which allows Twitter users to create a custom digital “newspaper” view of all the links that have been shared by people they follow — or even customized digital magazines like the ones Flipboard launched last year, or Facebook’s new Paper app, is that we can create a specialized news-feed that is targeted directly at our interests, via our social graph.
One of the downsides of this approach, however, as explained by Filter Bubble author Eli Pariser (who is now, somewhat ironically, a co-founder of the viral-content engine Upworthy) is that we potentially become surrounded by things we already agree with, instead of being challenged or exposed to different ideas.
This is why news-recommendation engines like Prismatic try to engineer what they call “serendipity” features, so that everything you see isn’t a homogeneous mass of things you have already expressed an interest in. Newspaper editors also (theoretically at least) choose to print stories that might not be sexy or interesting, but are important in some way. Can we teach robots how to do that too?
Guardian News & Media is an investor in the parent company of Gigaom. Post and photo thumbnails courtesy of Thinkstock / Ociacia as well as NewsWhip and The Long Good Read
Antenna maker Mohu is working on releasing its Channels TV adapter this summer after successfully completing a Kickstarter campaign that not only helped the company to raise close to $145,000, but also provided some input on the direction of the product. “The majority of the stretch goal feature ideas were suggestions from backers – the product actually evolved during the duration of the Kickstarter campaign as a direct result of backer requests,” said Mohu spokeswoman Jenni Samp.
Mohu Channels is a TV adapter that combines free over-the-air broadcast programming with online video services like Netflix, YouTube and Hulu Plus. The device, which is based on Android, will offer users a cable-box-like programming guide for live TV as well as the option to access additional video sources through an integrated web browser. Check out a first look at a Channels prototype below:
Some of the stretch goals the company added during its Kickstarter campaign include the ability to play back local content as well basic time-shifting functionality that will allow viewers to pause and then fast-forward through live programming, which should come in handy to skip ad breaks. The company will also develop an Android app that can be used as a remote control for the device.
Channels is competing with a number of other products, including streaming devices like Roku, Chromecast and Amazon’s new Fire TV, as well as over-the-air-centric products like Simple.tv and Tablo — but Mohu is coming at it from a unique angle. The company’s founders originally launched Greenwave Scientific, a defense contractor that developed compact radio antennas for armored vehicles.
Greenwave Scientific offspin Mohu took the same technology and repurposed it to build antennas for the reception of HD TV, building flat antennas that don’t look at all like your Grandma’s rabbit-ear antenna. This week, Mohu introduced a new compact model dubbed the Leaf Metro.
Social TV startup Zeebox is rebranding as Beamly, and focusing more on interactions that happen when a show isn’t airing — a departure from the focus on live second-screen activities that much of the social TV industry long focused on.
Then again, not much is left from that industry: When Zeebox started in 2011, it entered a crowded market of dozens of social TV startups. Fast forward three years, and most of them have given up, or been acquired amid a wave of consolidation and growing doubts about some of the key ideas of social TV.
Zeebox is still standing, in part due to well-filled coffers, thanks to backers like Comcast and BSkyB. Jason Forbes, the company’s U.S. EVP, joked during an interview that one reason for the rebrand was confusion around the Zeebox brand. “People thought we were a German competitor to Xbox,” he said.
But while Forbes touted Zeebox’s two million monthly active users as well as its young and female audience, he also had to admit that some of its early ideas simply weren’t working. “There has been a kind of reality check,” he told me. Companion experiences like quiz shows and trivia in particular just didn’t work for highly scripted shows, he said. When people watch Mad Men, they just don’t want to be bothered by an app on their phone or tablet.
That’s why Beamly now aggregates and generates more content that can be consumed before or after an episode is consumed, thanks to three editorial teams in Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. The company also teamed up with online celebrities to populate its show rooms with content. “Every single show is unique,” Forbes said, which is why each and every show required personal attention from the Beamly team.
It’s worth noting that Beamly’s few remaining competitors appear to be moving in the same direction. Viggle’s Wetpaint also aims to curate content for TV audiences, and TVTag, which recently absorbed GetGlue, uses a lot of human curation to make TV sharable as well. All of that is costly and potentially hard to scale. Forbes told me that he views Beamly as social TV 2.0, but one has to wonder how soon we are going to see the next wave of consolidation in this space.