Commentary

Going Mobile: Can Telematics Teach Us New Media Tricks?

"Everything in our house seems to be wired to an app,” my wife laments. “Every time I complain about something, he tells me there is an app to take care of it.” It's been a while since my wife has had the opportunity to vent among those who know me. She accompanied me to last weekend's MediaPost Video Insider Summit at the Mohonk Mountain House in New York, and so she was able to compare notes on my freakish ways with colleagues and even my boss. “He doesn't sleep, he doesn't eat, and he counts eight-hour workdays as vacation days.”

Yes, so? I still fail to see the point.

But her main mobile frustration until recently has been how many of our media appliances require app interactions. Her beloved Logitech Internet radio has been updated with a model that uses an iPhone app as its main controller. “I just want a button,” she insists. Apple TV, much of the home theater system, and the Dish satellite network all work with smartphone and tablet apps. And since Dish does not carry local weather on the Weather Channel as she craves, I keep reminding her that she has the Weather Channel in her pocket at all times.

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"I like having it 'on the eights'," she says.

"But with an app it is 'on the nows'," I say.

"I love you with all of my heart, and I say this with the profoundest adoration -- I may have to kill you now."

She was starting to come around, however, in those places where the apps have been thrust upon her and genuinely improve her day-to-day living. For instance, the Nike+ app is now letting her know how good a runner she is, and within a week of starting it she had become a devotee. "No matter what I do, they tell me that I just did a good job."

Having smartphone connectivity within the car has actually become an important feature to her, and it is one of her baseline questions as we shop for her next car. In my Mini Cooper we had gotten used to plugging in my iPod or iPhone and controlling my playlists directly from the steering column. In fact, I had been jerry-rigging iPods into my car audio for years before that as I replaced radio with on-demand podcasting. As I have written here before, I think that on-demand media is moving us toward a world where we all are thinking about how we program media into our everyday lives and direct different types of content into moments. I have always had podcasts, for instance, that I reserve for different types of activity, including drive-time.

There is no doubt that the auto industry finally is catching up with this leading-edge on-demand activity as it starts building telematics into the next generation of cars. One very interesting company -- aha by Harman -- allows users bring their smartphone connectivity with them into the car to integrate with the dashboard and audio system. Generally, it doesn't require any separate data plan for network. The company has already announced deals with 10 auto manufacturers including Acura, Chrysler, Ford, Honda, Scion, and Subaru. Essentially, the company takes Web content -- everything from NPR and CBS audio feeds to music services -- into the car. It claims 30,000 stations available in its system.

In an announcement yesterday, the company is inviting virtually any online publisher of audio content to make its material available through what it calls a Publisher Portal. “Our goal is to bring the long tail of the Internet to the car”, says Chia-Lin Simmons, VP of content and marketing.

The business model for all of this is ad support. Simmons tells me that the system will insert audio advertising as interstitials when people switch across the podcasts. Publishers that bring advertisers with them and already have integrated sponsorships and ad pods will retain them, of course. But she also believes that the integration with the dashboard will allow for new styles of interactive podcast advertising from which you can share revenue with the publishers. In her company's vision, a local advertiser could not only get an audio message into the stream, but could be integrated with the car's navigation system to direct you to the services nearest location, or to send a coupon for immediate use.

Turning the car into a site over which media companies next battle -- the next big mobile moment -- is a fascinating prospect on a number of levels. On a practical level, it raises the question of the pliability of everybody's data plan, and how cellular data itself becomes a kind of personal resource of which the user has to become aware, parse wisely, and perhaps negotiate in trade with marketers.

But just as the car over extends our data plans, it also moves on-demand media culture to a next level. As our DVRs, online streaming media, and apps accustom us increasingly to time-shifting and personalizing our media experiences, this raises the question about the place and nature of live broadcasting. When do we want or need it to be live? Drive-time is packed with breaking news and local information like weather and traffic that seems best left to the live stream. And the spaces in between usually are filled with inane banter. Within the context of the car, one can imagine even the next stage in which on-demand and live content are smartly integrated.

In a perfect, mobile media world, shouldn't my car be able to play my favorite podcasts or Internet radio most of the time but also be programmed to pause that flow and insert live updates of the information that I need to be live? It seems to me that the car mobile moment raises some interesting possibilities for how we really want to shape the next generations of media experiences. Just as on-demand media culture brings to the car a certain set of new expectations that telematics tries to address, I wonder whether the unique circumstances of absorbing media within the car context will then open up new models that will reverberate back onto TV, Web, and mobile.

Of course, the prospect of having to program your car to mediate between live and on-demand content fills my heart with dread. I'm not sure how I break this to my wife. I can see it now.

“How do I turn on the radio?” she will ask.

“Well, it is not so simple. You see, there is this app…”

She gives me that look that every spouse has for their partner, which telegraphs a warning not to finish that sentence.

“Let’s just drive in silence,” I suggest,” and enjoy the beautiful day.“

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