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Mobile Electronics Firms Fight to Stay Ahead in ICE

During the past decade, automobile manufacturers have made great strides improving the quality of in-car entertainment, otherwise known as ICE. Today, you can purchase or lease a car, truck or SUV with in-car audio, video, and game connectivity, even including brand names like Harmon-Kardon and JBL.

At first, you might think this new round factory sound and vision might spell doom for third party companies who offer in-car entertainment systems. At this year’s CES in Las Vegas, the mobile electronics industry was putting on its best face relative to ICE, and manufacturers were touting the advantages of “do it yourself” entertainment.

The hot trio of technology being touted by nearly every mobile electronics firm includes the iPod (Apple), MP3 audio, and Bluetooth. And most companies are eager for consumers to purchase products that combine connectivity and control for all three of these technologies, while also including traditional audio, video, satellite, and game consoles. These moves couldn’t be more timely – after market sales of CD-players are dropping, and will drop by more than 11% in 1006, according to a new report by Venture Development Corp, a research firm in Natick, MA.

Be careful when evaluating the components offered by manufacturers and others. This is a time of change and some general terms require more astute awareness if you’re to get the performance you expect. BMW has included Bluetooth for in-car mobile phone connectivity for more than a year, but it’s hit and miss performance has caused the company some grief, not to mention its customers. I have factory Bluetooth capabilities in my BMW X3, and it fails consistently within a few hours of use. According to various vendors we spoke to during CES, most car manufacturers, including BMW, are using version 1.0 of the Bluetooth specification, while after market suppliers are using version 1.2. The differences are important. Bluetooth 1.0 will not support concurrent management of music and mobile signals. Therefore, it’s difficult to play music or other data via Bluetooth in your car. As such, when making a purchase, you need to ask about these details, or you may be surprised after the sale. Some manufacturers, such as Motorola, have gone to great lengths to detail compatibility of their Bluetooth devices.

Overall, many manufacturers are adding a lot more than Bluetooth to their product mix. Many are adding USB ports for connecting a flash drive to the radio, PlayForSure compatibility for Microsoft-compatible MP3 players, faster and intuitive iPod adapters, and satellite-ready radios that can receive either Sirius or XM signals. Finally, some manufacturers are adding SecureDigital (SD) slots for media playback. This gives consumers a choice. Suppliers call this technology mix, “expandability.” The overall goal is for head units to play music and information in any format, from any handheld device or PMP.

According to Chris Dragon, JBL’s brand marketing director, the industry needs to move faster if it is to keep up with traditional consumer electronics companies. “There are millions of people out there with iPods and millions buying them monthly and sixty percent want to use them in the car.” As with Bluetooth, consumers need to inquire about the degree of iPod integration when purchasing a new car or truck. Some manufacturers offer iPod kits, but in reality, those kits emulate CD-changers and consumers cannot get all of the data, notably metadata from their iPods. After market manufacturers are, for the most part, offering complete data support for the iPod, making them more complete than the factory-direct units.

Consumers are also interested in being able to move media devices from vehicle to vehicle. If you own an iPod, you may not want to purchase a second one if you have two cars. In a typical family environment, one spouse will have a different library than the other and will want to keep that with them as they move from car to car.

As more of these third party devices hit the market, manufacturers are also making it more difficult for in-dash ICE to be replaced. More and more, manufacturers are integrating the car’s ICE into other functions, so the “radio” aspect is difficult to remove and replace. Even this tactic doesn’t deter the most creative after market entities. Some companies, such as Aamp of America are creating a series of OEM integration kits – adapters designed for specific vehicles or even specific models of vehicles within a single brand.

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