Ford, GM to integrate iPods into new models

August 04, 2006|By MIKE HUGHLETT AND ERIC BENDEROFF | MIKE HUGHLETT AND ERIC BENDEROFF,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

The automobile took another step closer to becoming a full-blown entertainment center yesterday, with deals announced between Apple Computer Inc. and the top two U.S. carmakers.

General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. will integrate Apple's iPod into their new models, further strengthening Apple's dominant position in the portable music player business. An iPod that meshes into a car's audio system is yet another example of how traditional communications boundaries are increasingly being erased.

DVD players are popping up in cars, entertaining bored kids. Satellite radio brings cable TV-like music channel selection to motorists. In-dashboard navigation systems offer computerized maps.

"There is some integration and convergence going on," said Larry Wu, senior director of automotive emerging technologies at J.D. Power and Associates, an automotive research firm.

Ford said that half its 2007 vehicle lineup will include - as standard equipment - a jack to plug in an iPod or any other MP3 player.

Drivers can control the music player's volume with their car radio dials.

Beginning early next year, Ford will offer a method of more completely integrating the iPod into a car's audio system. Dubbed "TripTunes Advanced," it's tailored exclusively for the iPod.

With TripTunes, an iPod runs through a special connection in the glove box and automatically charges while the car is turned on. Songs playing on an iPod are displayed on the car's radio screen. All iPod functions, including volume and track selection, can be controlled by steering wheel settings.

General Motors yesterday unveiled its "Personal Audio Link" iPod adapter, which will be introduced on the 2007 Chevrolet HHR due out in October. GM expects to make the device available on all 56 of its models, mostly by the end of next year.

The iPod adapter will be sold at GM dealers for less than $160 plus an installation fee. The music player also will hook into the car's glove box, and will have similar features to Ford's offering.

IPod adapters for car stereos aren't new. So-called "after-market" adapters are usually plugged into an in-dash cassette deck, or synchronized with an unused FM radio frequency.

But those systems are harder to use and don't offer as good a listening experience as an integrated system like Ford and GM plan, said Ted Schadler, an analyst at Forrester Research, a technology research firm.

After-market adapters sometimes require a certain amount of fiddling that "could be dangerous for drivers," he said.

Integrated iPod systems like Ford's and GM's aren't exactly new, either. Six of 10 new cars in today's market are already available with some sort of iPod integration system, said Michael Gartenberg, a consumer electronics analyst at JupiterResearch. BMW, Honda, Toyota, Mercedes and Chrysler all have models with that capacity, he said.

And Mazda made a similar announcement yesterday with GM and Ford. By virtue of their market share heft, however, the decision by Ford and GM to embrace the iPod is significant.

Apple's migration into the automobile "increases the utility value of the iPod," said Shaw Wu, an analyst with American Technology Research. "You are going to depend on this product more than before."

And Wu and other analysts say Apple's links to carmakers will only bolster its competitive edge in the portable music player market, where the iPod already has a share of about 70 percent.

More competition is coming, too. Technology giant Microsoft confirmed last month that it will build its own digital music player, called the Zune. But with the deals announced yesterday, more than 70 percent of 2007 model U.S. automobiles will offer iPod integration, Apple said.

That makes Microsoft's task of breaking into the market even more difficult, Gartenberg said. "It's not just competition with Apple as [music] player versus player, it's competing with player versus platform. Microsoft has to connect with an economy around Zune in short order."

For carmakers, the iPod is but one way to bring motorists more entertainment and communication alternatives. "There's going to be some fantastic stuff coming from us on the electronics side," said Said Deep, a Ford technology spokesman.

For 2007, Ford has doubled the number of models with navigation systems, and quadrupled those that feature Sirius satellite radio systems, he said. By 2008, Sirius will be available on 90 percent of Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles.

Ford is hinting, too, that the DVD player may not be the only in-car video venue. "Today, if you have satellite radio, why can't you beam in video programming to your car?" Deep said. "That's going to be coming."

Also on tap soon: Internet radio channeled through a mobile phone and into a car's audio system. Schaumburg, Ill.-based Motorola Inc. is working on just such a service, dubbed iRadio.

Subscribers to iRadio will select six commercial-free Internet radio channels - there will be hundreds to choose from - and download them from a computer into a mobile phone.

Mike Hughlett and Eric Benderoff write for the Chicago Tribune.

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