Crowdsourced Wi-Fi network operator Fon wants you to turn up the music: Fon is set to launch a Kickstarter campaign for a new device dubbed Gramofon Tuesday that lets you beam Spotify to your stereo system while also helping you to share your Wi-Fi signal with the world. It’s a new twist on Fon’s original Wi-Fi sharing concept, and the company hopes that it will help to finally conquer the U.S. market.
Gramofon is a square box that has about the look and size of two jewelry gift boxes stacked on top of each other. It features two Ethernet ports as well as a line-out port to connect your stereo. Users can interact with the device either through mobile apps, or with a simple round button on top of the case, which is accompanied by a round LED that communicates basic status messages through changing colors. Kickstarter backers will be able to acquire the device for as little as $30, and it will go on sale for $50 later this year.
Many of these details will be familiar to Gigaom readers — I first reported about Gramofon last month when I stumbled across the device in some surprisingly revealing FCC filings. But last week, Fon COO Alex Puregger stopped by our office in San Francisco to demo the device and tell me a little more about what the device actually does, and how it fits into Fon’s strategy.
How it works
Gramofon functions like any Fon router in that it shares a user’s internet connection through a separate public network, making sure that visitors won’t access files on your computer or slow down your network. At the same time, it also uses Wi-Fi as a kind of authenticator for social music consumption. Friends that come to your place can authenticate via Facebook, for example, and then automatically start to play music on your Gramofon, without the need to share Wi-Fi passwords or link their mobile devices with the music player.
Right now, Gramofon only supports Spotify as well as the web radio service Wah Wah, but Puregger told me that the company wants to add additional services in the coming months. Paying Spotify users can beam music straight from the service’s mobile app to a Gramofon, much in the same way that media is being cast with a Chromecast adapter (which means the music is being streamed straight from the cloud, and the phone can be turned off at any time without interrupting playback).
Gramofon is also building a dedicated control app to play Wah Wah, and Puregger told me that it wants to eventually add collaborative playback functionality, making it possible for users to queue up songs for a kind of real-world Turntable.fm listening party.
One feature notably amiss is the ability to play local content. There’s no USB port, and Puregger told me that there are no immediate plans to enable the playback of files stored on a computer or network-attached storage drive. “We don’t believe in that,” he said, adding that Gramofon would focus on cloud music services instead.
Where Fon wants to go with it
Also missing is multi-room music playback, which would enable users to play the same music throughout their house. Puregger said that the company may enable this in a future version, but also added that it doesn’t really want to take on established whole-home audio players. “We don’t want to compete with Sonos at all,” he said. Instead, the plan is to focus on Wi-Fi sharing and other unique features.
Speaking of Wi-Fi: Madrid-based Fon started 8 years ago with the idea of a community Wi-Fi network, giving users free wireless access in exchange for opening up their routers to strangers. The company has seen a lot of traction in countries where it partners with ISPs, and says it is now running close to 13 million hotspots worldwide. But in the U.S., Fon never really took off.
Gramofon is an attempt to change that, and also put a spotlight on other services that could be enabled through shared Wi-Fi. Much like the music router uses Wi-Fi for presence and Facebook for authentication to let you and your friends play music together, Fon could enable other services to offer shared experiences, be it in a connected home or a more communal space, said Puregger: “We see Wi-Fi as the connector.”
Correction: This post was updated on 4/15 to clarify that Fon is based in Madrid, not Barcelona.