There’s an emerging market for consumer electronics that are tinker-ready. It may be small, but it inspires passionate consumer loyalty, and tinkerers will pay a premium for the privilege.
I was reminded of the value of tinker-ready hardware in the past few days, as I played with a new gadget. I got a Roku SoundBridge m500 digital music player (for fifty bucks rather than the usual $200, but that’s another story). It sits on my WiFi network and allows me to select audio to be streamed over the network. It can play MP3 streams of internet radio natively, and interfaces seamlessly with both iTunes and Rhapsody. Out of the box, it’s a useful piece of kit.
But, brilliantly, the engineers at Roku didn’t stop there. You can add your own favorite radio stations to the machine’s internal list via a very slick web interface, which is handy. The real fun comes when you telnet to the box on port 4444. With a very simple, command-driven interface, it’s possible to take near-complete control of the device. You can play back Rhapsody tracks or SomaFM radio stations. You can draw arbitrary text on the display. You can adjust the volume, connect and disconnect from servers, and so on. Happily, it’s all relatively well-documented.
This increases the utility of the device substantially. For example, even with my limited programming skills, I was able to write a Python script to turn on the device, turn the volume up all the way, and play back KCRW’s News webcast. That, plus a cron job on my Linux box running the script every weekday morning, turns the SoundBridge into a very slick, very configurable alarm clock. I’m thinking about making it scroll various bits of useful morning information when it wakes me up, like the weather conditions or the number of unread emails in my Inbox.
Yes, I just used an awful lot of silicon to emulate a $10 clock-radio, but that’s not the point. The point is that Roku let me take control of the hardware I own in a way that few consumer electronics vendors do. And now I’m hooked.