Restoring 'radio' to the driver's seat
Even if it's not FM, Internet radio is an evolutionary step in broadcasting that more and more drivers will want.
For decades, radio has taken a back seat to the latest and greatest in-car technology.
From 8-track tapes to iPods, car audio has largely been about choice -- drivers getting the tunes they want without waiting for a deejay to play them or listening to annoying commercials. While recent innovations such as satellite radio and HD radio breathed new life into the century-old medium, they were largely a technology update on the traditional radio paradigm.
So it’s ironic that the newest ripple in in-car entertainment, Internet radio, essentially riffs off the oldest and original on-the-road technology companion for drivers. It’s also a bit of a paradox that the technology merges the connectivity of smartphones with, in the case of Pandora Internet radio, music curated by a third-party database.
Ford’s announcement today that it will include the popular streaming music service Spotify as part of its Sync AppLink feature proves that the next evolution of entertainment technology in the car is ready to hit high speed. Radio, it appears, is again on the cutting edge.
If you look at the progression of electronics designed for entertainment, almost every single innovation has been about users controlling the experience and allowing media consumption whenever and wherever they want. From the transistor radio in the 1950s all the way through to today’s tablet computers, any technology that has become popular has given consumers a freedom of choice and portability they never had before.
In the car, the evolution of entertainment has brought not only more quantity, particularly in recent years with iPods and MP3s, but also better-quality sound. And while radio has for decades offered unlimited options -- not to mention off-board music storage, making it the first “cloud-based” medium -- its Achilles heel has been that it doesn’t offer users much control, other than changing the station.
That’s changed with Internet radio services such as Pandora, which grew out of the Music Genome Project (MGP). The idea was to use data to identify the universe of popular music and the strains of DNA that link individual songs and artists. Using data, MGP could suggest that if you like, say, U2, then you may also like Coldplay.
The MGP technology was used to create Pandora, which allows the user to stream music to a computer or, in the case of the car, to a smartphone. In essence, the algorithm became the deejay. But with Pandora you can immediately tell the deejay what you like or don’t like using the service's thumbs-up and thumbs-down control.
With music-streaming services such as Spotify, as with the tunes you brought onboard via discs or another storage medium such as an iPod, you become the deejay and play whatever you want. The difference is that you now have millions of songs at your disposal stored on a streaming music service’s servers. Or with Amazon’s Cloud Player, which Ford introduced at the recent Consumer Electronics Show along with the streaming service Rhapsody as another addition to Sync AppLink, you can store your own music on a third-party server and access it in your car.
While most Internet radio stations are free and the most popular ones, such as Pandora, offer a “freemium” service with commercials, if you want unlimited listening or unlimited storage you have to pay a subscription. But as part of its ConnectedDrive suite of services, BMW allows owners to listen to dozens of Internet radio stations from around the world for free.
All this shows that streaming music services are redefining the role of in-car entertainment and that "radio" -- even without traditional broadcasting -- has the potential to restore this classic medium to the driver’s seat.
Doug Newcomb has been covering car technology for more than 20 years for outlets ranging from Rolling Stone to Edmunds.com. In 2008, he published his first book, "Car Audio for Dummies" (Wiley). He lives and drives in Hood River, Ore., with his wife and two kids, who share his passion for cars and car technology, especially driving and listening to music.
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