The open source movement is a revolution of technology populism that finally wrests control from companies and returns it to consumers. That’s pretty cool! The key to fully enjoying rich digital content is open architecture consumer electronics like ours. It rocks.

HomeToys Interview

Stephen Street | StreetFire Labs

smoking the kool-aid
An interview with Stephen Street

The open source movement is a revolution of technology populism that finally wrests control from companies and returns it to consumers. That's pretty cool! The key to fully enjoying rich digital content is open architecture consumer electronics like ours. It rocks.

Stephen Street founded StreetFire Sound Labs to create sophisticated digital media products at the frontier of home entertainment. The first product release, the RBX1600 personal music server, will debut in 4Q2004. A serial entrepreneur, Stephen spun StreetFire Sound Labs out of Red Rocket Computing, his networking technology incubator and venture investment company, in 2002. A software engineer by trade, Stephen was a pioneer in satellite TCP/IP applications and cut his teeth on the B-2 Stealth bomber and Tomahawk cruise missile programs.

So just how did you get started inwell, whatever hybrid crossover space you call StreetFire Sound Labs?

Well, like most entrepreneurs, I got really frustrated. I was doing a major remodel on my house and I thought, "Great, I can put in a really cool stereo system, with all kinds zones and networking and stuff!"

Pretty typical, right? Of course, it didn't work out that way at all. I soon realized that there is this tremendous vacuum where stereo gear, embedded computing and networking should all be coming together. So I started StreetFire. Now it's become an all consuming passion with open source at its core.

Do you look back now and ponder, "What the hell was I thinking?"

Yeah, it's certainly tested my sanity, but as a software guy it all seemed pretty reasonable at the time. I looked all over the stereo landscape and it was all closed, proprietary hardware and old tech from the traditional stereo guys. Did I think Microsoft would waltz in and altruistically save the day? Yeah, right! I figured the time had come for open source stereo equipment. In fact, now I feel even more strongly that open source stereo equipment is going to be huge.

How come the big boys haven't done this? Aren't you worried about them?

Anyone in the technology business is paranoid, or else they're not around for very long. But the real answer to your question is, no, I'm not so worried about the big guys. Understand that 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 - and then releasing the software under the GPL [open source license] so that the community can innovate on the platform. Big companies simply can't do that. It's against their DNA.

Why not?

Stereo manufacturers don't know the new technology, the big PC hardware guys won't touch anything until they can do massive production volumes, and the software folks are bipolar, alternating between running scared that the digital home space is lacking in standards, and then trying to shove proprietary solutions with heavy DRM [Digital Rights Management] restrictions down everyone's throats. It's pathetic! Consumers want stuff that works and they don't want any Big Brother schemes reaching down into their living room. You know the people hacking their Tivos and running Linux on their Xboxes? We love those guys! The thing is, Tivo and Microsoft should have the balls to encourage those communities, not actively try to defeat them with each new release.

Well, you've certainly made a huge commitment to open source.

We bet the company on it. Period. The open source movement is a revolution of technology populism that finally wrests control from companies and returns it to consumers. That's pretty cool! The key to fully enjoying rich digital content is open architecture consumer electronics like ours. It rocks.

But how does this differentiate StreetFire Sound Labs from other companies out there using open source software?

Many companies use open source software. Heck, Sony uses Linux as an embedded operating system for some of their stereo equipment. But that's more like lurking in a discussion group. You're not contributing to the community! Too often, I see companies that hardly even satisfy their GPL license requirements.

StreetFire, on the other hand, is absolutely smoking the Kool-Aid. We put the GPL code that we modified, like our StreetRacer embedded Linux OS, out there for anyone to use. We even released our own internally developed HADES application software as source code under the GPL. Nearly half a million lines of code! We give it away. We even put some additional hardware interfaces on the StreetFire RBX1600, which we call HackPoints™, so people could completely re-purpose the box for some other task. Nobody else is doing that.

Isn't that just a little bit insane?

Maybe, but you have to trust the consumer and the community. This is the future. Most immediately, though, it's the best way to open new consumer electronics markets when those markets are still too unstable for the risk-averse bean counters and lawyers at the big CE [consumer electronics] outfits. The open source community is the ultimate product development focus group. The open source projects around the RBX1600 music server will tell you exactly what consumers want to do with their music.

Let's talk about music, then. Where do you line up on the raging battle of file sharing and DRM?

Look, STEALING IS BAD. It's that simple. But more fundamentally, the record companies are dinosaurs and the meteor is bearing down on Earth. The less visible but actually more frightening thing that's happening is the almost surreptitious attack on consumer rights and fair use. Consumers should be able to make back-ups and reasonably enjoy their legally bought music. Legitimate technology companies should not be turned into outlaws for coming up with cool stuff, like P2P or...leading edge open source stereo equipment, for that matter.

Still, your first product, the RBX1600 is going to drive the RIAA absolutely crazy, isn't it? Are you expecting an angry mob of record industry lawyers with torches and pitchforks at your door?

No, the RBX1600 respects copyright and in fact should have the support of the RIAA. The RBX1600 encourages consumers to keep their music unripped and on CDs, because we enable fantastic streaming and network capabilities to CD-based music. Of course, we also integrate MP3-based music collections so that your music is format-transparent and location-transparent to the user. You want your music and you want it NOW, you know?

But going back to the RIAA thing, we're very pleased that MIT re-launched the LAMP music project [a listener-run music streaming service] based on a network of 10 RBX1600s. We'd like to see more university and corporate campuses use the RBX1600 for legal music distribution systems like MIT's LAMP. It's perfect for radio stations.

Isn't this the same LAMP project at MIT that got yanked last year?

Yeah, but it wasn't their fault. Their system was great but their hard disk-based music supplier had licensing problems. When they saw that the RBX1600 could handle a CD-based solution that was both networked and open source, it was a no brainer and we were happy to help out.

That's very exciting! But what's next for StreetFire Sound Labs?

We have quite a few product ideas for a 2005 release that we're pursuing and that we're extremely excited about. We'll continue to focus on our core area bringing computers and networking and stereo equipment together and we'll certainly stay true to our open source roots. I can't talk about the new stuff yet, but if you sign up for our NewsFire list you'll be the first to know. It's way cool so stay tuned!

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