Tech by VICE

Slacker Made Internet Radio Portable Before Mobile Data Could

Slacker figured out how to make internet radio portable. Unfortunately, they did it as the first iPhone was about to drop.

by David Bixenspan
Mar 14 2017, 7:30pm

I've always loved internet radio. As long as it's been a thing, I've been a constant consumer of it, using it as both a music discovery tool and an alternative to just shuffling my own music collection. But I always hated how, in the pre-smartphone era, it just wasn't portable. Even in the limited confines of my home, I remember having to get an FM transmitter to beam AOL Radio from my dining room desktop to the clock radio by my bed. I needed a way to listen without needing my home internet connection.

Enter Slacker Radio.

Image: Slacker

10 years ago this week, the service launched as both a software and hardware company. With the smartphone market was barely even in its infancy. Slacker attempted to fill the void that I and others wanted with the Slacker Portable, a pocket-sized, purpose-built "internet radio."

"It was originally founded on the premise of being able to use existing KU band satellite transponders to beam content down into a proprietary antenna," recalled Jonathan Sasse, who was Slacker's SVP of marketing and still works as a marketing consultant for the company. "The trick was, with a Sirius, or a DirecTV, they need a lot of bandwidth, because it's a live broadcast," explained Sasse; the device would cache the songs so you could hear them out of satellite range. As they pushed further towards production, though, Slacker's team realized that with Wi-Fi routers becoming ubiquitous, they could just make a device that synced its stations at home. Once it was synced, that was it, there was no persistent internet connection required. In that form, the Slacker Portable launched in February 2008, 11 months into the company's existence, retailing for $199.99 (2 GB), $249.99 (4 GB), and $299.99 (8 GB).

Initial hype was promising, with raves from Laptop Magazine and the BBC coming out of CES 2008. But it soon became clear that there was a bigger uphill climb than anticipated. When the Portable hit stores, some reviews were not great thanks mostly to various bugs. Perhaps more damaging was that ad copy and spec sheets did not do a good job explaining that the device didn't need a persistent connection. Explaining what it appealing was a hurdle to getting the masses interested. "It was a lot," recalled Sasse. "'I'm gonna buy this thing, and it's gonna work like magic over Wi-Fi, music's just gonna magically appear on this and be [the music] I like.' It had a lot of promises it had to fulfill, and consumers just weren't sure." It sounds simple now, but it didn't then.

Within a few months, though, after the bugs were fixed and Slacker was readying an improved second generation device, the original was offloaded to Woot, a daily deal website that's now owned by Amazon. With a much lower price point, ($49.99 and up), a more savvy customer base, and an improved product, Sasse says Woot is where the Slacker Portable found its audience. But a lot changed in the previous 18 months, and the device missed its window. Smartphones became the norm, mobile data speeds caught up, and purpose-built devices were losing their place except for the most niche possible use cases. Slacker's hardware division was effectively dropped until 2009, although devices still worked the same as before through 2014.

While a commercial failure, the Slacker Portable was a necessary step in building the company.

"There's no doubt that we wouldn't have the technology, the experience, the breadth of product that we have today if it wasn't for the portable," Sasse explained. "A tremendous amount of investment, learning, and IP went into those devices that today, is used to make our mobile app experience unique," he added, referring to features like offline listening, which Pandora only added six months ago. The Slacker Portable may not have set the world on fire, but it was ahead of its time and internet radio is better for it.

"It was a key step for us in differentiating some of our technology and some of our listening experience," said Sasse. "That DNA is in every product Slacker ships today."