Sunhawk – Great Idea, But Perhaps Too Far Ahead Of Its Time

sunhkBrent Mills calls Sunhawk Corp., the company he co-founded, “the second wave of the Internet.” That’s because Sunhawk’s products, development process and marketing are all completely digital. Using innovative software, Sunhawk produces and markets multimedia sheet music that can be downloaded, read, rearranged and even played over the Internet. The foundation of the virtual organization: an intranet that is the glue between software programmers in Canada, music editors in Russia and Sunhawk’s official “headquarters” in a Seattle house.

After people log on to Sunhawk’s Web site and download special software, they can buy sheet music that goes far beyond anything available in music stores. Users can see the individual notes on the score light up as they listen to the music. They can change the instrumentation and pick up the tempo. Musicians can even turn off part of a song so they can play or sing along.

This may seem to be Internet karaoke with Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. But creating the technology and organization was more complicated than mastering a Rachmaninoff concerto. That’s why Sunhawk needed a complex organizational structure and intranet technology, since the company uses home-based workers to keep costs low and tap into talent.

“Intranets have become the foundation for Internet companies, which are typically small and staffed by contractors and freelance workers,” said Jim Balderston, an analyst with Zona Research Inc., in Redwood City, Calif.

The key to Sunhawk’s operation is Solero, an optical character recognition engine and viewer for music. Improving the software requires a constant dialogue between music editors and programmers–a difficult feat considering that they are sometimes half a world apart (some music editors are in Russia, where labor costs are lower).

Marlin Eller, Sunhawk’s co-founder and chairman and one of the original designers of Microsoft Windows, addressed this problem by adding a section to the intranet called Raid, which is modeled after Microsoft’s software development process. Every time an editor has a problem, he or she sends an E-mail to the Raid system, noting the bug and attaching a problem file.

Raid turns Sunhawk’s software development into an intranet newsgroup. “Because of this, we’re a lot better documented than most software developers,” Eller explained. “When people come aboard, we can say, ‘Here’s 1,000 E-mail messages on everything we’ve done–just read through the threads yourself.’ We have most of the design decisions down on paper.”

At the same time, Eller acknowledged that virtual development has problems. Typing E-mail is more laborious than chatting, and users don’t benefit from looking over one another’s shoulders. “There are still some communication problems we haven’t worked out yet,” he said.

Operational notes

Sunhawk’s cutting-edge operation began in a decidedly old-fashioned place: the music section of public libraries. Sunhawk employees went through music books, looking for classic compositions that weren’t copyrighted (the company has since expanded to modern compositions by hatching deals with Warner Bros. and other publishers). That information is input into a laptop, then downloaded into a database on the intranet, so workers can see what music is scheduled to be digitized. This codifies the sourcing process and prevents Sunhawk from, say, putting two piano versions of the same piece through the system.

Five workers run the print scores through Ricoh Corp. IS410 production scanners, inputting a total of 800 pages in a nonstop 8-hour day. This raw material is sent to “first-pass editors” through the intranet.

New editors peruse “easy play” versions of scores, while experienced hands receive more complex compositions. In each case, the first-pass editors look for relatively simple mistakes such as missing notes.

The home-based music editors are given 166MHz Pentium PCs with 32MB of RAM and 64-bit sound cards. The PCs are custom-built for Sunhawk by Computer Stop, a Bellevue, Wash., computer store long favored by Microsoft programmers. Sunhawk switched from Windows 95 to Windows NT for two reasons: Workstations don’t crash, and workers have a tendency to put games on Windows 95, a temptation Mills doesn’t want his telecommuting work force to have.

After the initial look, the material goes to “second pass” editors who are trained musicians, generally with four-year university degrees. They reformat the music to Sunhawk house style, making sure the margins are flush and the composers’ names and titles are correctly placed. Most important, they look for mistakes that may have been in the original source material. Versions of scores can vary significantly, depending on the skills and whims of the particular arranger.

“The editors can listen to the music play back and see the notes light up on the score,” said Mills. The geometric precision of musical notes can alert editors if a note in one passage is at odds with a similar passage.

The development process is complicated by the newness of the technology. Sunhawk’s programmers produce about once a week a new version of the Solero software that editors can download through the intranet. Programmers are busy catching bugs and introducing new features, such as animation of fingering charts for guitar players. Sunhawk expects to need these bells and whistles for the next years to keep ahead of competitors who plan to enter the market.

Myriad compositions

The Sunhawk intranet also handles sales and list management, using a detailed database that is updated every time a product is sold, when customers register or correspondence is received. Scanning this information lets Mills look for patterns and adjust pricing. By seeing what songs are being purchased, for instance, Sunhawk may decide to bundle compositions together. The first page of a score can be seen and played for free on the Internet; the rest of the score is decrypted when users send a credit card number. Scores range from $1.95 to $4.95.

Sunhawk also uses the intranet for Web site development by building Web pages and viewing them before posting. This was accomplished by developing a thin program language on top of the HTML named Davidspeak, after the programmer who produced it.

This is snazzy technology, but, of course, the sweetest music to the ears of any business is the sound of a cash register ringing. Surprisingly, most of the firm’s initial customers have been nonmusicians; they are people who like to watch the notes on the score light up as the music plays. Eller said Sunhawk is too new to predict whether this buying pattern will hold. But he has no doubts digitized music and virtual organizations will strike a chord.

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