Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Toyota, Ford, iHeart, Pandora, and lemmings

As you probably heard, Toyota issued a teaser news release confirming that they will be integrating iHeart Radio into future models of Toyota vehicles. That is great news. However, the details of exactly how they will do it are still not revealed. Judging from past announcements from Ford about Pandora and Stitcher, BMW about Radiotime, and Smart about the Smart Drive app for iPhone though, it is a safe bet that if it ships in 2011, it will be a tethered solution, requiring the user to "dock" their smartphone with the auto. Now, we all know how I feel about tethering (it is a poor consumer experience that will prevent a truly mass market), but for 2011 it is the only real choice. This is because the car electronics shipping now were defined, at best, 18 months ago and more typically, 36 months ago. At that time, data plans were about $60 per month - far out of band for the typical consumer. Now, driven by the tablet market (thank you again, Steve), dedicated data plans from Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T are dropping like rocks. The $20 plan for 1GB from Verizon is very reasonable for a dedicated Internet connection in the car. One that would allow the typical commuter to enjoy off-board navigation, local search, social networking, and, of course, Internet radio. This pricing opens real possibilities, but it is unclear how automakers will leverage the potential.

The route that automakers will take in 2011 is not a mystery. They will use tethering to bring smartphone apps into the dashboard. Resulting in some functionality for the consumer but leaving each car looking eerily like the other while they all ape my smartphone. The question really is, what will automakers do for 2013 and beyond? Will they continue to jump like lemmings off the cliff while they chant the mantras of "tethering" and "app stores"? Or will they push beyond to create unique Internet solutions in the dashboard that present compelling, differentiated Internet radio experiences? As I keep saying, the driver needs to be able to power on, turn the knob, and enjoy great music without having to worry about getting their phone set up before they turn the key. This same ease of use needs to apply to all connected services in the car. A combined automotive experience for the dashboard, including Internet radio, will require about 800MB of data per month. $20 per month is pricey, but it is within the upper bounds of consumer acceptance. It enables a new way of thinking about Internet in the car.

Ford seems to be aggressively trying to rebrand their company as a consumer electronics company. Headlining at CES, CTIA and other unusual venues, Ford wants to become associated with those rocketing markets instead of the PR-impaired auto industry. Judging from the relative valuation CE and mobile companies (think Apple) I think that is a brilliant, if difficult, move. The other automakers see this leap and are marshaling their own effort to tap into the content/electronics/mobile/apps enthusiasm. They are all looking for their own "SYNC killer" in the same way that tablet makers are looking for iPad killers. Toyota's announcement, for example, indicates that this is a teaser for CES 2011, showing their own intention to increase their branding in the consumer electronics market. However, desire and intent do not guarantee success. Will automakers deploy "me too" solutions that stagnate on tethering and apps or will they leapfrog the current Ford SYNC and create solutions for the car that are truly tailored to the unique capabilities of the car platform: unlimited battery power, no weight limits, far more accurate sensors, and, of course, great sound.

Will automakers embrace the possibilities and move towards KITT? or will they shrink back give us Nokia terminal mode at 2 frames per second? The future is being written right now.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Half-baked tethering from RadioTime and BMW

(image from Wired.com)
OK, so by now you know me. Internet radio in the car is my passion. However, I am also pretty busy and way too practical. I still drive the 2002 PT Cruiser I bought in December 2001 because it runs just fine, thank you very much. (Let's forget about the fact that it needed a new transmission after only 36,000 miles ... ) The result of this practicality is that when I get in the car, I generally just sit down and go. Even though it would only add less than a minute to my departure, most times I don't take the time to get out my iPhone and connect it to the iPod adapter. It is far easier for me to just hit the power button on the radio and listen to our local NPR affiliate, KPCC, so that's what usually happens.

If I, someone who is really motivated to get Internet radio in the car, don't take the time, should we expect others to do the same? Well, when I check around I find that I am not alone in this behavior. People want convenience and will generally take the easy path.

So, now we get to the RadioTime announcement. What bills itself to be an innovation and a "first" is just another half baked attempt to put Internet radio into the car. Similar to the Pioneer AVIC announcement with Pandora earlier this year, users can connect their iPhone to the car and use the Mini's dashboard controls to tune Internet radio. While both solutions do have the benefit of using the in-dash controls to access Internet radio, helping usability, they still fail because they require the user to connect their iPhone. Just like impressions on the second page of Google search results or clicks below the fold, the drop off rate on usage due to this requirement will be huge. People will do it the first couple weeks, but then they will forget one time, then another time, and soon the feature will go unused. Then the iPhone connector in the car will get old and will not be compatible with their new iPhone for next year. The net result will be that they wasted their money buying a feature that they only enjoyed for a couple weeks.

As such, until Internet radio is truly integrated into the dash, it will not take the place of FM radio or even satellite radio in the car. Integration doesn't mean just controls. It means controls and connectivity. It has to be truly built in and "just work."

Until you can sit down, power on, drive off, and enjoy your favorite Internet radio, it isn't viable competition for the user's time in the car.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Only now they get it?

Through the blinding Internet blizzard that surrounded CES 2010, an interesting article caught my eye. Someone decided to downgrade the Sirius XM stock because of the announcement by Pioneer to integrate control of Pandora's iPhone app into their new line of AVIC navigation products.

I find this fascinating, not because people are seeing finally Internet radio as serious competition to satellite radio (I will temporarily ignore the fact that Pandora is a jukebox and not actually "radio"), but because it took a $1200 navigation system to make them see it. Folks have been able to integrate their mobile phones into their cars for nearly 4 years now, at the cost of a mere $10 for the cassette adapter or even less for a 1/8" stereo cable if they already had an AUX jack. If someone really wanted to go wild, they could splurge $50 for a more complete kit that included a power adapter.

So what's going on here? The answer, methinks, is integration and interface. Once we can use Internet radio in the car seamlessly, it becomes real. The solution by Pioneer, though, is still only a step in the right direction. The label "radio"comes with a specific user experience expectation...

Power on, turn the knob, and music comes out.

Sirius XM in the car delivers that experience. Internet radio in the car still does not. Once it does, then it will be a viable comptetitor to other forms of radio in the car. The good news is that we are almost there. Soon the perfect storm of integration, UI, and affordable connectivity will make Internet radio a truly viable alternative for in-car entertainment.