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Mobile radio apps jump from the smartphone to the dashboard at CES

Three years ago at CES car stereos started talking to smartphones to control apps like Pandora. This year radio apps are moving en masse from the smartphone into the dashboard. Smartphones still provide the critical mobile data link, although one auto manufacturer announced a deal to integrate that access directly in the dash.

Two major US auto manufacturers announced platforms that will let drivers run third-party apps on their on-board dash computers. Radio apps are some of the first to get in line for this opportunity.

For Sync Applink Developer ProgramFord introduced its Sync AppLink platform at the 2011 CES, and this week announced that it is opening up the platform to more developers, offering a software development kit to download. The focus is on music, information and entertainment apps, while the company will deny apps that feature too much text, video or games that would distract drivers. AppLink is available on several cars and trucks, including the 2013 Fiesta and 2012 F–150 truck.

GM app developerGeneral Motors announced that it will also offer a software development kit to developers. Qualified apps will be downloadable through an app catalog accessible via the dashboard, but the platform is not yet available in any vehicles.

At CES this week GM demonstrated radio apps from iHeartRadio, TuneIn, Slacker and the Weather Channel. Ford’s Sync supports control of apps for iHeartRadio, TuneIn and Slacker, adding Stitcher to the mix, as well as the subscription music services MOG and Rhapsody. There are also apps dedicated to 17 terrestrial radio stations, including New Jersey’s independent rock station WDHA-FM.

Chrysler announced its own mobile entertainment platform called Uconnect, which will have the ability to access mobile data via Sprint’s network, in addition to connecting via a smartphone. The platform features iHeart Radio, Slacker and Pandora apps.

Harman International manufactures home, pro and mobile entertainment systems, and has been offering its Aha radio platform in Kenwood, Pioneer, Subaru, Honda and Acura car stereos, in addition to iOS and Android apps. Aha offers customizable audio channels consisting of content from broadcasters and podcasters, in a manner similar to Slacker Radio and Stitcher, but with an emphasis on localized content. At CES Harman announced that Aha would be added to Ford’s Sync, Chrysler’s Uconnect and Porsche’s Communication Management system.

As smartphone integration gets tighter more drivers will experience mobile streaming radio as seamlessly they do satellite radio. While some radio lovers with smartphones have taken the initiative to connect the audio output of their mobile devices to their car stereos for quite some time, having to control the stream on the phone itself is annoying at the least, and dangerously distracting at the most. App integration with the vehicle’s in-dash controls definitely will grow the audience for online radio, though probably at the expense of some terrestrial broadcasters.

I still wonder what effect this will have on wireless data plans, which have become more restricted and more expensive on the major carriers. The next frontier is cutting the smartphone tie, with mobile data built into the vehicle itself. I would think carriers and automakers could team up to make this option reasonably priced by limiting access to bandwidth hogging apps, like video.

At the same time, these platforms are shipping on a limited number of models, with Ford offering its Sync on the widest range of vehicles. When this kind of integration makes it onto standard equipment–or at least the most popular option packages–is when we’ll see mobile internet radio really take off.

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