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Carmaker Gets in Sync With Pandora

Ford Pursues a Gateway Model In Exploring the ‘App Space’

Ford’s new Sync AppLink — offered in the 2011 Ford Fiesta, and coming to other Sync-equipped Fords — will allow drivers to access and control Pandora Internet radio directly in their cars.

No longer will drivers have to plug their Androids, BlackBerrys and iPhones into their car stereo systems, then control their functions on these devices while trying to drive. Instead, by using Bluetooth connectivity, Sync AppLink-equipped drivers will be able to control Pandora using their car’s voice recognition system or manual steering wheel controls. The idea is that Internet radio should be as easy to use for these drivers as AM, FM and Sirius XM are now.

Julius Marchwicki of Ford. ‘Just because Internet radio is now easier to use in the car doesn’t mean traditional radio broadcasters have to suffer — as long as they keep up.’ So does the advent of such in-car Internet radio spell the doom of traditional radio broadcasters?

In-car connectivity

Not at all, says Julius Marchwicki, Ford Sync AppLink Product Manager.

I contacted him, on assignment from Radio World, to see what he and Ford are thinking right now about this question.

“I am seeing a lot of traditional broadcasters who have staked out territory in the app space, thus allowing themselves to compete on wireless devices,” he told me.

“For instance, Clear Channel has an app that allows you to access 750 of their stations on your iPhone. So just because Internet radio is now easier to use in the car doesn’t mean traditional radio broadcasters have to suffer — as long as they keep up.”

Ford’s Sync application is designed to allow drivers to access their wireless smartphones, MP3 players and in-car functions safely, using voice or steering wheel controls. Devices that are separate from the car are linked using Bluetooth wireless to the Sync system. In this way, Ford is providing a common voice/manual interface system that can connect to any Bluetooth-enabled device, as long as its software contains the necessary programming code.

The carmaker’s decision to use this common gateway approach, rather than install vendor-specific Internet radios and the like, is a response to the impermanence of Internet-focused companies.

“A vehicle development cycle takes about four years,” Marchwicki says. “To have included a specific Internet radio for 2010, we would have had to partner with whatever Internet radio manufacturer appeared dominant in 2006. Well, most of the companies who were big then are not now, while Pandora only came into its own in the last year. This is why we prefer to use the gateway model, because it is relatively future-proof.”

To encourage companies such as Pandora, podcast site and Twitter to develop Sync-accessible apps, Ford makes its code to trusted partners and developers.

“Sometimes we approach certain developers; sometimes they approach us,” says Marchwicki. “In either case, the code is there for them to incorporate into their apps. This makes their apps more marketable — because they can be used in Sync-equipped Fords — while giving car buyers more reasons to buy our products.”

At press time, Ford had launched a website specifically aimed at developers. “We let them post information about their products and services, so that we can contact those who might be able to develop more Sync-compatible apps,” he says.

Benefit or threat

There seems no doubt that adding extra in-car listening options could threaten traditional radio’s listenership. But the critical word here is “could,” because the arrival of in-car Internet radio does not have to be a threat to radio. In fact, it could be a benefit.

“What makes services like Pandora attractive to drivers is that it allows them to hear the music they like and skip the music they don’t,” Marchwicki told me. “This is due to the two-way interactivity not just of Pandora, but web-based entertainment media as a whole. In contrast, traditional radio is very much a one-way experience. The most choice the driver has is to change the channel.”

Based on Marchwicki’s responses, I am led to a few inescapable conclusions: First, for traditional radio to compete with Pandora, radio’s iPhone apps need to offer the same level of choice and interactivity — and then some.

This means leveraging traditional radio’s local edge to offer services that a national service like Pandora can’t, such as access to hyper-local news, weather, sports and community events. It also means making it easy for fans of WCBS-800 New York, for example, to hear it via Android, BlackBerry or iPhone anywhere they go — while still receiving relevant news and traffic information for the actual area they are driving through.

A third insight regarding radio and the Web that I draw from Marchwicki’s views: Two-way interactivity with traditional broadcasters is a must, so that listeners will have some say in what they’re hearing. Otherwise, they will simply tune over to Pandora, where they do have such clout.

“Those radio broadcasters who are launching their own wireless apps are seeing their audiences increase, not decrease,” Marchwicki concludes. “This is why I don’t think in-car Internet radio spells the doom of traditional radio. If anything, it is proving to be a new opportunity for those broadcasters savvy enough to seize it.”

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