Today its offerings run the gamut from free streaming radio competing with Pandora to complete on-demand subscription access competing with Rhapsody, but what differentiated Slacker in its early days was the ability to cache Internet radio stations for offline playback. This was achieved via the Slacker Portable, the first version of which featured a large 4" display but an awkward user interface and controls; stations could be cached via Wi-Fi or sideloaded from a PC. A planned accessory that would datacast the Slacker service via satellite for use in the car never materialized. Slacker cleaned up its act considerably with the smaller and slicker G2 version of the device, but by then the writing was on the wall.
Nowadays, the Slacker app, which uses touch screens to provide a better user interface than was possible on the dedicated players, can cache stations and download songs via a wide range of smartphones and tablets, the iPod touch, some Android-powered media players and the Sony Walkman X. However, it requires a monthly fee for its ad-free Plus tier to cache stations whereas ad-supported caching was free on the devices.
Popular apps such as Shazam and SoundHound can identify songs after sampling just a bit of them by tapping into a big music database in the cloud. But gadget-based song identification was tried a decade ago by the flash drive-like Sony eMarker (and its backed competitor, the Xenote iTag) using a kludgy workaround to audio fingerprinting. If you heard a song playing on the radio and wanted to know what it was, you would press a button on the device. Later, you'd plug the device into a PC and it would take you to a Web site that listed what was playing at the time by using a service that tracked radio song airtimes.
The eMarker had a small LCD that indicated how many of the ten songs allowed at a time you had bookmarked. It was a strange limitation because the eMarker didn't sample the audio itself. It recorded only a date and time stamp when you heard something on a default FM radio station. If you did something crazy like change the radio station you were listening to, you'd have to tell the companion Web site the station you tuned to or the song would be incorrect. Sony killed the eMarker after about a year and offered refunds to those who had bought it, making it one of the biggest flops of the era for Sony outside of the much more imposing and expensive BeOS-based eVilla monochrome Internet appliance.
Today, free apps such as Waze and Google Navigation will route you around traffic; even the bundled Maps app on the iPhone can show trouble spots. But when far fewer people owned smartphones, a Seattle startup named TrafficGauge sold a handheld device of the same name that used the paging network to provide real-time traffic status updates. Since a sparse layout of the city was fixed on the device, a separate edition of the gadget existed for the four supported cities of Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago.
TrafficGauge found itself embroiled in controversy when it began charging a monthly fee to consumers who had already signed up for lifetime service due to the rising costs from paging network operators.The company was ultimately acquired by handset navigation vendor Neworks in Motion while its founder went to work for rival Telenav.
Next week's Switched On will discuss the visions for two other dedicated devices that ultimately prevailed on smartphones and throw in a bonus marketplace failure from Microsoft that was ultimately realized on tablets. (Hint: it's not Courier.)
Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director and principal analyst of the NPD Connected Intelligence service at The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.