Tim Westergren, cofounder of Internet radio service Pandora, considers only one mobile device the "Holy Grail" of his industry. It's a device that many people can't live without—one they bring everywhere and practically live in, and use to consume music more than any other device. No, it's not your iPhone. Nor is it some Android tablet.
It's your car.
"Half of all radio listening happens in the car," Westergren says. "It's a place we need to be." David Hyman, CEO of on-demand subscription service MOG, agrees. "Cars are huge," he says. "It's going to completely disrupt the market."
There's just one problem: Fast as they they may go, automobiles are some of the slowest-moving mobile devices in the industry, plagued by fragmented software ecosystems, unwelcoming development environments, and old-world product cycles. Even as BMW, Ford, and Toyota push for more advanced apps and Internet-connected dashboard displays, because of the nature of their industry, their mobile devices (cars) will forever be years behind iPhones, Androids, and other mobile devices.
"It's roughly a three- to four-year cycle between the time [a car] is on the drawing board to the time the car even comes out," says Drew Denbo, SVP of business development at MOG, who has spent years working with auto manufacturers. "So they have to decide today what's going to be big in 2015 and 2016. That's so hard to do with everything moving around. They don't know what people will want, whether it's subscription [music], downloads, or [Internet] radio."
But that's far from the only problem manufacturers have. After the vehicles roll off the assembly line, it only gets worse. "Cars don't turn over every six months like somebody's smartphone does," Westergren says. "It's more like seven years." It's the equivalent of still using a phone today that was developed a decade ago, years before iTunes and iPhones even existed. How could automobile makers ever keep pace and offer a modern music experience?
For Pandora, MOG, Spotify, Rdio, and other streaming services, which believe cars are crucial to their futures, the auto industry is an unbearably long-term investment. It's worthwhile, because there's an estimated 250 million cars in the U.S. alone, according to Hyman, many of which are still hooked up to (free) AM/FM radio, while some 20 million drivers are shelling out a pretty penny for solutions such as SiriusXM satellite radio. Getting a lock on this market would do wonders for a service like Spotify, which charges users $10 a month for unlimited access to music anywhere. (Sirius, on the other hand, gives users access to just a bundle of channels, and is not an on-demand or personalized music streaming service.)
That's why Pandora, which has ironed out more than a dozen automobile partnerships, has committed to the auto industry despite its headaches. Both Pandora and MOG have full-time staffers in Detroit working with automakers, trying to get them to adopt their services. "I've frozen my ass off in Munich about three of four times trying to get these German guys onboard too," laughs Denbo. Says Westergren, "We've been at this a long time. We recognize that it's a category that's going to grow slower than smartphones because you have to do it brand by brand, model by model. We feel like we're planting a lot of seeds that will gradually bear fruit. It's not our fastest-growing category, but it's steady and it's massive."
Worse yet, the systems that car manufacturers are putting in place are severely fragmented. Each OEM—Ford, BMW—offers its own proprietary software solution. Then there are platform companies that help supply software in some cases, such as Aha, which Harman acquired in 2010. Then there's third-party companies that provide automotive entertainment systems, such as Panasonic, Delphi, and Pioneer, or after-market solutions from Clarion or Alpine.
Denbo describes the process of developing for these mobile devices: "A lot of these companies have built their own API frameworks where they've considered: What should album artwork look like on this head unit? What should a playlist look like? What should a radio channel look like? What should a queue look like? They give us that API framework, and we plug it into our iPhone and Android applications. A lot of these API frameworks are pretty—well, it's early days for them. They're still trying to figure it out, so it's a lot of work to get integrated with these APIs. With BMW, we've taken those APIs, built them into our iPhone app, so when you take the iPhone and you cradle it in the BMW, it remotes the application out to the head unit, and shows up on the dash."
All that investment for just one model of one brand's car, which will take years to roll out and turn over. "It takes a lot of work," Westergren says.
There's a simple solution to this fragmentation, a solution that would open cars up to a massive app market and a huge pool of developers. Why can't automakers just load their systems with Android, as smartphone makers from Samsung to HTC have, allowing for a scalable fix to the problem that could be updated with new versions of the software for years to come? It's a solution many have thought of but few if any have been able to implement. At last year's CES, for example, Parrot Asteroid unveiled the first Android-based audio receiver, an after-market solution that hit market in November but that has yet to gain much steam.
And the stodgy auto industry doesn't look like it'll be welcoming Google into its cars anytime soon. "You talk to a lot of the die-hard automotive guys, and Android is just not on the table for them," Denbo says. "The problem is that the number one and number two responsibilities they have are safety and reliability. These guys want to have everything work 99.999% of the time, and Android's not a platform that's designed to give them that yet. Car telematics systems are so intertwined with the rest of the car: You may do an Android update that goes and fucks the breaks up or takes out the lights. That's their absolute worst nightmare. It's why they all come in and decide to build this stuff on their own from start to finish."
If anything, Denbo hopes the systems will start running more HTML5 applications, a solution that will allow developers to scale their software across myriad platforms. It's a solution developers hope will also end fragmentation on Android, RIM, iOS, and other smartphones in the future.
But don't expect any significant changes in these mobile devices for years to come.
"It's been an investment of time—that's the investment we've had to make," Westergren says. "But we feel like it's very doable."
[Image: Flickr user sciondriver]