CES 2007: XM Radio Then and Now

The 2001 CES was novel in a number of ways. The digital barbecue grill, meat thermometer and FM radio alone was well worth the price of admission for any early adopter with a grilled meat fetish. But for me, the 2001 CES was notable for an entirely different reason: That was the year they launched XM Radio.

Tucked away in a tiny booth, at the back of the hall sat an orange and black car emblazoned with logos. I wish I could say exactly what type of car it was (Volkswagen sounds right), but to be honest, I paid it little mind. Satellite radio sounded, to me, about as stupid an idea as I’d ever heard, and besides, there was another, perhaps better competitor joining the market at the exact same time. And Sirius at least had given us cool swag. As far as I was concerned, XM Radio was destined to be an also-ran, and each time I had to dodge around that colorful car to get to where I was going, I breathed a slightly audible sigh at the audacity of the little radio company with their little satellites.

This, my friends, is why I’m not a tech stock analyst.

Five Years later, I have to admit that XM is here to stay, and after spending an hour or so in their booth on Tuesday, I’m more than a little impressed with where they’re headed next. Radio, it would seem, was just the beginning.

“I work for a little aerospace company called Boeing,” said the old man across the table. Julianne and I had barely managed to scam a couple of empty seats at the crowded LVCC cafeteria, and when we looked up at the person with whom we were sharing eating space, it was the smiling, creased, gap-toothed face of Neil who looked back.

Neil is a near-retiree serving as an aeronautic instrumentation consultant for Boeing, and another of companies with which Boeing associates. One of these being XM Radio.

“We launched their satellites,” said Neil, “back when they were American Mobile Satellite.” And he went on to describe the various ways in which the little satellite-radio-company-that-could used space tech pioneered by Boeing to partially dominate the digital air waves. Intrigued, I decided to learn more, and it was with very little trouble that Julianne and I, again exploring the cavernous vastness of the LVCC, found XM’s booth.

The tiny booth with a car in it has been replaced this year with a section of valuable real estate in the LVCC’s Central Hall approximately 10 times its size, and the little car has been supplanted with case after case of glowing displays upon which are mounted the vast array of XM’s current product lineup: MP3 player/receivers, mobile receivers, car kits and homes stereo systems have all been rolled out, many with enormous success, in the five years since XM launched. It’s also clear that in terms of content delivery, radio may just be the tip of the iceberg for XM. Their latest MP3/receiver device, the SKYFi3, features a large black and white screen, which will soon be updated with a full color version, perfect for video viewing.

Even the car has been updated. It’s no longer emblazoned with XM logos, and it’s no longer forgettable. XM’s Advanced Services Concept Car is a sleek Lexus SUV loaded with far more than just a radio.

The Advanced Services Concept Car features four new high technology services, all linked wirelessly tot eh XM satellite network, and which will all likely become irreplaceable standards in years to come. The first, and perhaps the most compelling, is the WeatherLink, a location-aware weather forecasting service which, when layered over the vehicle’s GPS navigation system, can not only tell you what the weather is like where you are, but what it will be like where you will be when you get there. Giving you the chance to postpone or reschedule that long drive, if the weather looks particularly dicey, or at least have more information available with which to make a decision.

If you’re determined to press on, however, the vehicle also comes equipped with ParkingLink, a system which purports to keep tabs on various parking lots and garages near your destination, and can help you save time by not wasting it looking for non-existent spaces. I’m dubious that enough parking systems will tie in to the service to make it viable, but we’ve already established what my skepticism is worth. If it works, it will be awesome, so I’ll leave it at that.

Even if the ParkingLink never comes to fruition, the XM Advanced Services Car still offers plenty. Augmenting the WeatherLink, the over 150 XM radio channels, the Advanced Services car promises news and stock quotes custom-delivered to your vehicle and a completely voice-activated interface, which, according to XM representatives, will be unlike any voice recognition system yet developed, allowing the user to speak conversationally with the XM device instead of having to vocally navigate a telephone-like decision tree.

As with all concept cars, this one is likely many years away from the showroom floor, but it’ll be a small step for the company that, in less than five years, grew a 7+ million subscriber empire out of practically nothing and made this editor wish he’d been less of an idiot back in 2001 and dumped some money in stocks.

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