By Lori Fazari
Andrew McCallum’s computer goes everywhere with him. In his 24 years, he’s seen desktops and laptops come and go, but his current love is an ultrathin silver Panasonic Toughbook with military specs: 6.5 gigabyte hard drive, 128 megabytes of ram and sturdy enough to stuff into his green knapsack when he leaves work.
He named it Silver. “I’d rather apply humanistic characteristics to things—computers get pissed off, they have a bad day, they’re confused,” McCallum says. “I live with my computer.”
Silver is the envy of all the executives at Internet startup iCraveTV.com. Being the only technology guy on staff gives McCallum the bonus of having the coolest computer. He’s even got the hippest title: technology wrangler.
McCallum is an Internet cowboy blazing a path in this hyped-up, dot-com frontier, where businesses, armed with little more than a good idea, attract millions in capital with no real revenue to show for it. At iCraveTV, he’s helped shape a fuzzy notion to broadcast live television feeds over the Internet, wrestling with technology that will soon become the next big thing.
In a way, he admits, plain luck helped him get the job fresh out of RYerson. “I was kind of in the right spot at the right time with the right people.”
It all came together because those right people had good ideas, but didn’t know how to execute them. They were suit-and-tie wearing executives whose networking skills involved business lunches, not computer systems. That’s where McCallum—soft-spoken and wiry thin, with a mop of sandy brown hair and wire rimmed glasses—found his calling.
No one knew then how much trouble a tiny Internet startup of seven people could get into when it stepped on the toes of the entire North American television and film industry. iCraveTV found itself in a web of lawsuits after broadcasters accused the startup of copyright infringement.
A year ago, McCallum sat with his laptop on the deck of his parent’s Richmond Hill home, with no goals in mind but enjoying his first taste of freedom after four years of living in Pitman Hall and completing Ryerson’s administration and information management program. He had job prospects, including a position at a Web design company he had consulted for, but there was no rush to start working.
It was during those lazy days that an idea began to bloom. McCallum’s father, Ian, was thinking of starting a venture with a business partner, Bill Craig, that would bring TV to the Web.
It all began with a simple observation. Craig was watching his two songs use their laptops and occasionally sneak glances at the television screen. Why, he thought, couldn’t the TV be on their computers?
“I was a part of the kitchen table,” McCallum says—a bunch of guys sitting around talking about how to make that idea work. In those first few months, neither Ian McCallum, who had worked as a broadcast consultant and a writer/director for the National Film Board, nor Craig, who had been general manager at a Pittsburgh sports channel, knew much about the Web broadcasting industry. Craig only got his first computer two years ago.
Computers had been a part of Andrew McCallum’s life since his family got their first one in 1982—a Texas Instruments machine that stored filed on a tape deck. In high school, he led a programming team and designed his school’s first E-mail system.
“Computers were my extracurricular activity,” McCallum says. “And they sucked up a lot of time.”
They were also a way to meet people with the same interests, mainly electronic music. McCallum’s love for technology and craving for a social community converged when he started dialling into the Internet in the early 1990s.
He began downloading music from bulletin boards and writing his own songs, and soon built up a following under the DJ name Mental Floss.
“That’s what we totally loved about our scene. We made very little investment, save for a good sound card, and we made professional-sounding music.”
With an investment of about $5,000 in two desktop computers, a synthesizer, mixing board and effects board, McCallum has played at more than 20 raves and was planning to release a CD in the fall before he became busy working for iCraveTV.
At Pitman Hall, he put on a series of electronic music parties called POTS (after the plain old telephone systems used to broadcast the music over the Internet).
Residence life appealed to him because it was an instant community. “It didn’t seem very fun to regard university the same way I regarded high school,” he says. “Being on campus made it easier to be more social.”
At one of his rave broadcasts in third year, 520 people streamed through his suite to hear four DJs spin tracks.
More days the faint sounds of techno can be heard from McCallum’s office at iCraveTV. His collection of music is stored on Silver, which is why when he went shopping for a laptop, he looked for something sturdy and reliable he could take to raves. The executives are used to it, and barely blink an eye at the trance or ambient techno they hear as they walk by his door.
It’s all part of iCraveTV’s laid-back environment. Sure, there’s the old school executives, including president Bill Craig, v.p. of sales John Trickey and McCallum’s father v.p. of business development. Then there’s McCallum, the cargo-pants wearing-guy who never stays still and will sit cross-legged on his father’s desk until he realizes it’s unprofessional.
“What I’m doing right now is verbatim what I would do in my courses,” he says. With an exception: “When you get in the real world, it gets sloppier.”
Just like when iCraveTV launched. By last October, the startup had moved into its offices on the northwest corner of Bloor and Yonge streets. McCallum set up computers and the office network, and kept in touch with their Web design firm and the technology company that was pulling live video feeds and making them digital. After the Nov. 30 launch, McCallum responded to technical support E-mails and was developing a way to gather demographic information from site users.
“There aren’t very many people out there that have that kind of experience,” Ian McCallum says. “Being able to see how the conceptual side of it and the functional, technical side and business side all mesh, come together.”
At the computer that is iCraveTV’s Internet gateway, McCallum sits on a cardboard box and plays with the mouse—chairs are scarce and half the office is unused and unfurnished. He named this computer Styx, after the river, because “it ferries your soul across to the Internet.” Both Styx and Sputnik, the network computer, sit in empty rooms on the Compaq boxes they came in.
When you enter the front door, a phone in a corner on the floor is the only sign of a reception area.
“You don’t actually have to look impressive to do impressive things,” McCallum says. You can build a business on a good idea.”
iCraveTV’s idea was to take other people’s content and redistribute it in a revolutionary way. The intent was to air Canadian and U.S. feeds from 17 networks such as CBC, CTV, NBC and CBS, then approach the companies and negotiate a deal for distribution rights. “In our analysis of Canadian law, there was no need to ask for permission,” Ian McCallum and the executives left the office for a bar where they could watch CP24 for updates on the lawsuit rumours. When they got back, someone was waiting with a suit filed by the National Football League, National Basketball Association and the Motion Picture Association of America, which represented 10 movie studios and three TV networks.
iCraveTV refused to go off the air, at least not until a U.S. federal court served the company with an injunction that forced it to stop broadcasting on Feb. 8. The lawsuit was dropped by the end of the month when iCraveTV agreed to stop transmitting TV signals to U.S. viewers.
This doesn’t mean they’ll have to pack their computers into the boxes they came from. In a month, iCraveTV is planning to relaunch with a subscription-based service. The startup has also negotiated for rights to offer movies and shows on demand. A new and patented iWall will prevent U.S. viewers from logging on.
In spite of the lawsuit, iCraveTV’s executives know they’re on the edge of something that will be huge, once the rest of the world catches on.
“I was always just along for the ride,” McCallum says. “And this was just another aspect of the ride.”
It’s all part of his role as a technology cowboy galloping along in this fast-paced Internet frontier. “I tend to take unrelated things and make them work together.”