9/27/13: Ford adds Livio to pursuit of digital dashboard standards

Brad Hill
September 27, 2013 - 12:45pm

The ability to pivot, moving in a new direction from the same vantage, is crucial in basketball and business. Livio, whose acquisition by Ford has lit up the connected-car niche, pivoted adroitly from making internet radio devices to writing car connectivity software. Ford, for its part, appears to be pivoting on its Sync and AppLink assets, adding Livio’s branded technology as a wholly-owned subsidiary living side-by-side with Ford’s digital-dash solutions.

Livio’s flagship product is a universal platform that links consumer devices to car dashboards. The scenario: You bring your smartphone into the car, and your favorite Internet listening apps get connected to the dashboard’s head unit where you can more easily and safely control them. Ford’s AppLink performs the same basic function -- Scott Burnell, Ford’s global lead of business development, describes AppLink as a snippet of code written into infotainment apps such as Pandora and TuneIn.

Matching the ease of AM/FM radio in the car with the programming variety of Internet radio is the brass ring for users and app providers. But that mission does not appear to be shared among car builders, most of which provide independent solutions. Questions of who provides the Internet connection, the apps, and the operating system are being answered in multiple ways, reflecting many marketplace approaches.

RAIN talked with Tim Stevens, Editor at Large of CNET and noted car-tech expert, about creating dashboard standardization out of the deep fragmentation which currently exists. Stevens pointed to Livio’s existing relationship with Chevrolet as an interesting deal point. (Livio Connect is implemented in the Chevrolet Spark.)

“It’s interesting to see Ford acquire somebody who has third-party relationships with other car companies, GM in this case. And I’m guessing that GM is planning to expand that out to other models. Ford has been pretty open about wanting to establish some kind of standard of smartphone connectivity and infotainment in general. This is a pretty strong indication that they are serious about wanting to define that standard.”

Burnell, who appeared on RAIN Summit’s “Race to the Dashboard” panel ten days ago in Orlando, explained why Ford’s “brought-in” solution to dashboard standardization, in which the user provides the apps and the Internet connection, is favorable to users and app developers. 

“The life cycle of developing and launching a vehicle is about five years. If you embed Pandora into the head unit, going through the OEM’s [development] cycle, it might be obsolete when it comes out. With Ford and the brought-in solution, it’s the user’s app and they are already using it. It can connect to the vehicle, and work.”

Stevens notes that car companies have become more adept at separating dashboard development cycles from the rest of the car model’s evolution, quickening the creation of new dashboard connectivity features. But that isn’t moving the industry as a whole toward a standard infotainment dashboard, according to Stevens. “I don’t think the OEMs are motivated to play nice together. They ultimately are focused on delivering what they think is the best product for their buyers. Making any concessions in the interest of keeping their developers happy is not on their radar. Ford is the only one that is thinking about that.”

Livio’s mandate, as expressed by founder Jake Sigal, is “More connectivity with less hassle.” That ideal is certainly foundational to dashboard standardization, but there are many paths forward through a thicket of technologies. The mobile device companies like Apple and Google are not (yet?) significantly involved, and the competitive landscape could get more complex than it already is. A universal listening system in the car, one that approaches the simplicity of AM/FM receivers, could be a mirage for years to come.

Brad Hill
September 27, 2013 - 12:45pm

Creative curation is Internet radio’s latest programming vogue. Songza, for which “life moment” playlists are the cornerstone of the service’s “Concierge” programming strategy, emblemizes the approach of serving the user in action, furnishing a music stream that matches daypart, activity, and mood. This tactic, more than simple genre or decade playlists, seeks to make the service exquisitely responsive to the listener’s transient state of mind. Songza attempts to soundtrack the changeable here-and-now.

It is an appealing service paradigm, one that can be optimized by granular song tagging on the back end, refined by user customization actions (likes, skips, shares) on the front end. Slacker, a competing platform which has long specialized in creative in-house playlists, recently co-opted Songza’s playbook and established a new aspect of its listening app. Called “My Vibe,” Slacker’s day/do/mood associations are clearly modeled on Songza’s leadership. Slacker introduced the mobile version with an iOS app specifically designed around iOS 7 (it is gorgeous), and its new Android experience dropped into Google Play yesterday (it is serviceably attractive).

If you choose the “My Vibe” path through Slacker’s new apps, you are presented with a greeting which calls out the current daypart ("Pick some music for a Friday afternoon") and requests a couple of choices -- just as Songza does. If there is a key differentiator in Slacker’s favor, it is how the interface is packaged on a smartphone screen. The user makes two choices on one screen to get the music started. On Songza, the user is pulled through three decisions on three screens. A tiny detail? Yes, but convenience resides in details, and the lean-back listening market seeks the best, most personalized music with the least effort. On this point, it’s a win for Slacker.

The two services also differ in how user choices are described. Songza requires more knowledge of music sub-genres -- a nice hook for people who do understand, for example, psybient electronica. Slacker, in contrast, uses evocative station titles like Yoga Flow -- attractive to listeners who catalog music by its effect rather than genre designation.

If Slacker’s My Vibe stations seem familiar to its users, there is a reason: the stations are existing Slacker playlists repurposed for the My Vibe environment. The new interface appears to be accomplished through tagging of existing assets (“Handcrafted stations”) to the day/activity layout (“Music for every moment”). If that is comprehensively true, Slacker has leaped into Songza’s space without any additional handcrafting.

It will be interesting to see whether other platforms bite into the music-for-now space, and -- futuristically -- how this programming tactic might be extended by new mobile technology. Imagine a smart watch which feeds you workout music when it discerns that you are exercising, or lullabies when you are in bed. Or consider Google Glass, which wouldn’t need to ask what you’re doing -- it can see for itself. My Vibe? Or, My Every Move Tracked By Technology?

Brad Hill
September 27, 2013 - 12:45pm

Pink Floyd drummer uncharacteristically praises music streaming. The iconic rock band has been a staunch and excoriating opponent of Pandora in the past, criticising the leading Internet radio platform for seeking lower royalty payouts. Speaking independently of the band, drummer Nick Mason granted an interview with the Wall Street Journal (“Streaming Is the Future”). Pandora wasn’t mentioned, but Spotify was, a lot. “Spotify for us was a success.” Mason seems to be basking in an epiphany: “Now it’s becoming clear that streaming is not another form of piracy.”

 

Rhapsody will add BandPage profiles. Music subscription service Rhapsody, which recently transitioned its leadership and suffered a deep-cut staff layoff, is adding a dimension to its programming through a partnership with BandPage. BandPage offer fan engagements and monetization opportunities to artists, who can craft experiences ranging from meet-and-greets to song critiques. Rhapsody will bundle BandPage experiences into its platform, synchronized with listener searches for participating bands. The partnership could be a pioneering way of inserting high-touch artist experiences into low-pay music streaming, increasing revenue for the band and engagement for the user.

Lefsetz on change. Bob Lefstez’s editorial rampages (see The Lefsetz Letter) are always entertaining, if not always on the money. The recent rant about iOS 7 was a lot of whine for the dime. Today’s disquisition (distractingly titled “Porn”) examines shifting consumer demands and the devaluation of legacy music assets and business models. “Change is constant. The key is to see the opportunities as opposed to mourning the loss.”

Rdio adds a feature. Lean-forward listening platform Rdio is encouraging lean-back use with its new Recommendations segment, fueled by Rdio’s ongoing relationship with The Echo Nest. The new feature surfaces albums, stations, and playlists based on usage history. It’s available on desktop now. Mobile-first evangelists would say that nothing is launched which isn’t a phone app, and presumably Rdio will roll out Recommendations to iOS and Android. (See Rdio’s blog announcement.)

Brad Hill
September 27, 2013 - 12:45pm

Did you miss RAIN Summit Orlando, the premiere gathering of Internet radio professionals? Now you can catch up with the entire audio content of RSO panels, keynotes, and RAIN Internet Radio Awards, either via streaming or downloading. For web listening, look at the sidebar of this page for the orange Play button. Click on any session listed beneath it, to hear that entire session.

The audio tracks are stored on SoundCloud (here), which is where you want to go for downloading any or all of the Summit sessions. Once downloaded, you can transfer to mobile and listen while sitting in a cafe (to block out the alt-caffeine soundtrack), while working out (Summit topics definitely get the heart pumping), or while meditating (for subliminal intake).

The Summit agenda and speaker list are laid out here. Broad topics include ad insertion, alternative revenue strategies, building a digital sales team, the Internet radio marketplace, streaming music trends, connected cars, and keynotes from Entercom CEO David Field and RAIN founder Kurt Hanson.