First Blog. January 8, Consumer Electronics Show

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Ford presentation at CES

Ford/Microsoft Steal Car Audio Show at CES

Ford received two Innovations Awards at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show, marking the first time a car maker walked away with the plum achievement in consumer electronics.  Ford is also the first CE company (yes, it really is a CE company) to let users receive Tweets (by voice) as they drive.  It’s also the first vendor to give users cellular and Wi-Fi access via an air card connection in the radio.

My question is why hasn’t Pioneer, Kenwood or Alpine given us this level of innovation?  None of the car audio companies at CES offer an air card option in the radio.

Before I answer… a little more on Ford.

In yet another first, Ford will offer voice control over Pandora, as well as Twitter and Stitcher, streamed from a phone.   Pioneer and Alpine will offer Pandora control from the radio but not spoken control, such as “Play Modest Mouse radio.”

And… Ford is talking to Google about bringing services to the car such as Google voice search as you drive.

It’s not just Ford eating the aftermarket’s lunch. Kia Motors is now partnering with Microsoft—the company which helped Ford develop the above innovations.  Kia is planning for this year a radio called UVO (Your Voice) that mimics what the Ford Sync radio offered two years back—the ability to connect most gadgets to the radio including a Bluetooth phone, and then to control the music on an iPod or cellphone by natural voice commands.

Fiat also offers a Blue&Me radio in Europe built on Microsoft technology with similar features as the Kia UVO.  Now the Fiat 500, as well as the radio, are heading to the U.S.

Hughes Telematics is also offering an advanced car system through Mercedes Benz and planning to add some whiz bang audio advancements in the not so distant future  (I’ll get to that in an upcoming blog).

The aftermarket’s modus operandi is to keep a step ahead of Detroit by plying the car with technology.  But since CES 2009, it appears the aftermarket has ceded its advantage to Microsoft, Ford and soon other car makers.

So I return to my question.  Why didn’t aftermarket suppliers offer air card Internet two years ago? Or last year? When polled, one honest supplier at CES admitted, “no one wanted to be first.”  It’s a big investment in redesigning the radios and times are too tough to make that kind of commitment, he said, adding,  “Companies are more conservative than they were ten years ago.”

Pioneer and others will tell you that they didn’t want to require consumers pay additional monthly air card fees.  But the point is, some of these consumers already own an air card (ever hear of netbooks)? Anyway, new technology goes to early adopters, remember?

Contrast this attitude to Ford’s statement in the CES keynote address by CEO Alan Mulally:  “Broadband access will be the signature DNA of all Ford products worldwide.”

Yes, there’s some innovation in the aftermarket. Audiovox is trying, at least, with FLO TV.  But why isn’t Mobile DTV—a new free TV service–displayed as a prototype at every 12-volt booth at CES?

When it comes to the aftermarket, some of the biggest innovation will come from smaller starts ups, said Al & Ed’s Autosound president Gabi Maschal.  Autonet Mobile is an example, as is Mobileye.  So, Al & Ed’s believes more of its business will shift to smaller vendors.  Rather than 80 to 90 percent of its supply coming from three large vendors, the chain says 50 percent of its business will come from smaller vendors.

Also, Audiovox said it is looking at offering add-on products for the Ford Sync. Hmmm.  What would you add?

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