Car computer hobbyists hack XM Radio

By John Borland
Staff Writer, CNET

A band of car and computer hobbyists has reconnected the XM Radio broadcasts to PCs, after the satellite radio company discontinued hardware that was being used to copy and archive digital music from the service.

The XM satellite radio service is used largely through dedicated hardware, but until last month could be heard on a computer by using hardware that plugged directly into the PC. The company phased that PC link out, in part citing slow demand, after a Canadian programmer wrote software that allowed listeners to record and archive individual songs on a computer as MP3s.

Now a small Florida company that makes in-car computer systems has re-created its own version of the hardware, saying its customers want a way to hook their onboard PCs to an XM system.

The system may also be plugged back into the TimeTrax radio-recording software, again raising the possibility of pristine digital copying from the satellite service. The developers, at a company called Hybrid Mobile Audio, say they’re more interested in giving people flexibility in listening to the XM Radio service, however.

“A lot of people in the MP3 car community…wanted XM satellite radio, but don’t use normal (radio) units; they use touch-screen computers,” said Ben Stahlhood, chief software architect for Hybrid Mobile Solutions. “We decided we could help them work out the problem.”

The continued tension over XM’s link to personal computers foreshadows what has already become a larger debate over new digital radio technology. Broadcasters are slowly moving to signals that provide pristine, CD-quality signals over the airwaves. Record companies in particular are worried that consumers will record music using TiVo-like devices, putting more downward pressure on music sales.

The Recording Industry Association of America has already asked the Federal Communications Commission to include some kind of copy-protection standard along with rules for digital radio technology.

The new XM Radio equipment also shines a light on a small community of hobbyists who are pioneering onboard car computer systems, however. The community, which hearkens back to the early “home brew” days of do-it-yourself computer builders in Silicon Valley, is creating car radio systems that are more like Media Center PCs than they are old-fashioned FM radio.

Some of those hobbyists had used XM Radio’s PCR hardware to plug into their onboard computers. When that hardware disappeared, engineers at Hybrid Mobile took apart the remaining XM Radio receivers, figured out how they worked, and created a new piece of software and a cable that could support the XM technology, aimed at plugging it all back into a PC.

The new kit costs $40, and is available on Hybrid Mobile Solutions’ Web site. Customers must be XM Radio subscribers, and purchase official XM Radio hardware in order to use the kit.

The company said it is in talks with TimeTrax, the company that created software for recording using the original PC-based hardware, to make the two companies’ products work more closely together.

The satellite radio service recently launched a PC-based service, but the computer has to be connected to the Internet for it to function. A spokesman for XM Radio had no comment on the Hybrid Mobile product.