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Here Comes the New Dashboard

So what’s in store for the auto dashboard of tomorrow?

It may not be whatever’s on the drawing board in Detroit (or in the picture above).

It may really be whatever’s in your pocket.

So says venture capitalist John Backus:

In-car electronics, standalone GPS, satellite radio, seatback DVD players and HD radio will quickly disappear, replaced only by the smartphone powering a dumb screen on the dashboard.

In other words, argues Backus, YOU are the new dashboard.

And when he says all these technologies will “quickly disappear,” he’s talking about them as unique and distinct technologies.  He’s not talking about their content or their value propositions.

For example, all of these elements are potential “apps” that can be powered from your pocket.  Satellite radio will not necessarily disappear, but we will not need the satellite to hear it.  We will watch seatback videos, but from our mobile devices.  And HD radio…well, let’s just say the Internet provides a multitude of audio content possibilities.

May the best content win.  May MY content win.

Backus is not alone in this prognostication.  I hear much the same thing from Slacker and DAR.fm’s Michael Robertson, with whom I had a very surprising chat that I’ll share with you in a few days.

The one thing this perspective misses is that automakers are using in-dash technology to sell cars, and providing a “dumb screen” may give the consumer what she wants, but it will not differentiate one car from the next or contribute to incremental sales in a world where everyone’s in-dash screen is “dumb.”

Thus I expect some hybrid future where a “somewhat dumb screen” will have enough embedded intelligence to set apart one make or model from another. Especially as the dash (something which has largely been a commodity over the years) becomes a prime selling point for new cars.

That’s despite what will be a rising chorus of complaints from consumers that “my car ships with crapware” (a great rant from Scott Hanselman):

The Toyota Prius V that we just bought comes with a system called Entune. This is a little computer in the dash itself that includes Applications (yes, applications) like Bing Search, Pandora, Traffic and others. I’ve got a dual-core internet connected super-computer in my pocket and you can get one yourself for $99 at AT&T but my new car includes an underpowered, low-resolution, low-memory tiny computer of its own. It would have made far too much sense for them to spend the money on an awesome 6? or 7? screen that mirrored the phone.

It is an absolutely inexorable trend, this steady drift towards customization and consumer control.

And the best way for broadcasters to be on the right side of this trend is to embed aspects of customization and consumer control across our product platforms. After all, what is a simple in-car “button punch” but a display of customization and consumer control?  Fight this trend at your peril.

Note that nowhere here have I commented on the long-term fate of the good old-fashioned “radio dial” – the ability to receive all your local radio stations on that quasi-dumb screen.

That’s because I don’t see the local radio options going anywhere anytime soon.  The lure of familiarity and habit will be too great – for those generations who have the familiarity and habit, that is.

Will in-car audiences drift to all the attractive baubles that their mobile devices can power on those “dumb screens”?  You bet they will. But this will be a loss of radio listening time, not a rejection of radio altogether.

How will radio make up that loss?

Not with its same few brands repurposed on apps on a virtual store shelf thousands of entertainment options larger, that’s for sure.

You can’t make up that loss of listening.  You can only make up any losses of revenue by deepening your relationships with consumers and advertisers in the markets your brands uniquely serve.  Make up that revenue and grow it. More value, more choice, more customization, more control, more ways for consumers to get more “into” your brands and more brands for them to get “into.”

One radio station begat a “cluster” of stations.  Now you will have a “cluster” of assets which together constitute your brand portfolio.

You’re not in the radio business.  You’re in the relationship business.

Get used to it.

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