Right Wavelength

Peter Johnson figured the world needed a tuner for Web radio. His idea is beginning to click

Whenever winter workdays in New York started to drag, software designer Peter Johnson escaped to Australian summer--without leaving his desk. He just tuned in to Aussie rock stations broadcasting live across the Internet. But Johnson, now 29, wondered what he was missing in the exploding world of Net radio. Hundreds of stations Webcast blues from Antarctica or news from Tehran, yet no one provided a simple way to find and connect to the feeds.

He decided to fill that gap with three entrepreneurial pals: high school buddy David Litt, 28, an accountant at Morgan Stanley, and computer whizzes Orn Kristjansson, 30, and Stasiu Harrison, 25. The four worked off-hours for three months or so. Then, bankrolled by about $70,000 in collective savings and family loans, they quit their day jobs at the start of '98. Incorporated as Nothing Else Matters Software Ltd.--named for a favorite Metallica song--they had launched a Web site by April, offering the product free with plans to sell an advanced version once they had built a following. Called the vTuner, it was a Yahoo! for radio, listing and reviewing more than 1,800 stations by category and country and rating them for speed, sound quality, and selections.

The vTuner impressed software critics, and by June came The Call--or in this case, the E-mail--that drives so many Internet dreams. RealNetworks Inc. expressed interest in a partnership. Real controls at least 80% of the booming market in players for "streaming media"--audio or video that plays as it downloads. What drew the company to the vTuner team? "They had a winning idea but were also ready to listen to our feedback," says Dave Richards, vice-president for consumer products. The Real deal offers a customizable version of vTuner at a half-price $14.95 with a paid copy of RealPlayer. The boys get a cut. And while Real won't break out sales, the manager of its online calls it "one of our better sellers." Word of mouth alone brought 200,000 downloads before Real started to market it.

There's lots of potential left; worldwide, 60 million copies of RealPlayer have been downloaded, and experts say streaming media is in its infancy. The vTuner took in just $130,000 before the deal, but 1999 revenues are estimated at $1 million.

Meanwhile, there's competition from rivals such as Earth Tuner, made by DigiBand Inc. of Alpharetta, Ga., but vTuner has a head start and high hopes. Stay tuned.

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