Lately industry observers have been predicting the arrival of the automotive app store along the lines of the Apple model. The predictions seem to suggest that this is a simple and obvious proposition with a single business model and development path. In fact, it is a complex and evolving proposition with no single solution or magic bullet.
Ford Motor Company and Mercedes-Benz have already learned how challenging this proposition really is. Both organizations have successfully developed – in-house – their own applications – an expensive, labor intensive, and time consuming proposition. But application development is only part of the challenge. Here is the complete list:
1. Platform selection – Which handsets will be supported? Which carriers will be partners? Which operating systems (versions!) will be adopted?
2. App store selection – Which app-store(s) will be supported or used? Carrier? Handset maker? Third-party? Own branded?
3. Pricing model – Free? Free for limited time? Free with premium add-ons? Free with paid premium version? Subscription (monthly, annual, lifetime)? Pay per use? Sponsored or ad-supported?
4. Application acquisition – Download? Activate on-board app? Access cloud-based service? Access device-based app? Dealer install?
5. Handling of upates – Automatic wireless? Customer self-service with USB drive or direct connection of handset? Dealer?
Recently announcing the sale of its second million cars equipped with Sync, Ford appears to be having the most success, early on, in the automotive app business. Ford appears to prefer to distribute its Sync application directly from its www.syncmyride.com
Website. This makes sense since some of the applications, such as 911 Assist, require a dealer installation. The Website also provides detailed phone and media device compatibility information along with software upgrade information, application demos and FAQs.
Most of the Sync services are available for free for the first three years, and some require a data plan. The data plan requirement reflects an industry-wide inclination to leave data charges to the customer. The provision of free applications to Ford customers reflects a market decision to leverage Sync to sell more Fords – a game plan torn straight out of Apple’s playbook.
Based on Strategy Analytics analysis of the Apple business model, the app store is positioned either as a loss-leader or breakeven proposition. The primary purpose of the Apple app store is to sell more iPhones, iPods, iTouches and, now, iPads. Similarly, Sync is intended to sell Fords and, judging from the fact that 2M Fords have been sold with Sync the strategy appears to have traction with consumers.
The Sync proposition also has traction with dealers and fits well with the existing Sirius Travel Link services both of which are enabled by Nuance speech recognition. Both offer an effective customer demo.
At Mercedes-Benz, the mobile application is called mbrace, which is also the name of the company’s new telematics service, which replaces Tele Aid. While Ford’s Bluetooth-enabled application works with most Bluetooth-enabled phones, mbrace is compatible with a narrow list of iPhones (OS 2.2.1 or later) and Blackberries (4.5 or later) including GPS models for customers that want to access location-aware applications.
The mbrace application can be obtained from Apple’s iTunes store or Blackberry App World and the only carriers that are supported today are AT&T and Verizon Wireless. The mbrace service is $240/year or $480/year (@$20/month) for mbrace Plus which includes concierge and other location-aware services. Of course, Mercedes could always vary this pricing depending on its marketing objectives.
Mercedes has not yet positioned mbrace as a service offering designed to sell more cars. The immediate purpose of mbrace was to replace the existing telematics service provider and create a mobile phone integration platform. And since Mercedes is also focused on providing premium telematics services first, as opposed to simple infotainment tasks, the company does recommend that the customer have an unlimited data plan. This is not a big deal considering most smartphone customers are required to purchase data plans.
Like Ford, Mercedes is interested in rolling out additional applications from third parties on a regular basis. Ford has gotten a head start on this effort with the release of its software developer kit. For now, Mercedes has been content to continue to do most of its development in house.
The latest application from Mercedes, also for the iPhone, is intended solely for the Smart vehicle line and includes a full suite of infotainment applications. There is no announced plan to bring this application, which works with a separately purchased cradle, to Mercedes-branded vehicles.
The real challenge for car makers is that the mobile market is a moving target. Market leadership between handset makers, operating system suppliers and carriers is a dynamic environment ruled by supplier innovation and consumer preferences.
Ford’s choice of a combined Bluetooth and USB interface to enable Sync has made it easier to keep pace with the changing array of available phones. But testing for compatibility remains a substantial undertaking. (The current Ford Sync compatibility chart is nine pages long.)
Apple’s influence on this market has been to add a couple of layers of complexity or, to be charitable, opportunity. By opening up its app store to third-party developers, Apple signaled a key turning point in the app store model. Developers are now able to choose the platforms they want to develop for based on criteria such as size of addressable market, amount of revenue share, variety of available revenue models, and ease of doing business.
With its rapid rate of customer acquisition and the flexibility of its application revenue models, Apple has raced ahead of competing app stores in attracting application developers and applications. (Apple has even gone so far as to provide a tool for developers to target pricing tiers to specific date triggers: http://bit.ly/a4ETQw
.) Strategy Analytics has estimates of revenue shares (available to clients) with the caveat that these percentages vary and change.
Ford’s decision to offer Sync for free for an extended period of time along with additional free applications reflects the desire to build an attractive addressable market. While handset makers such as Nokia (with its Ovi store) and carriers can target massive user populations, car makers are more challenged in rapidly building a sufficiently large user community. Ford has a significant jump on competitors with its 2M unit addressable market.
App stores are coming to the automotive market, but the path will be a crooked and expensive one. There is no single model that will work for every player. Ford and Mercedes are pursuing similar paths with completely different approaches. Every car maker will have to find its own way.
Two things are clear: The investment in an automotive application store is a multimillion dollar proposition involving significant and ongoing costs in development, support and marketing. The potential upside, though, is the opportunity to redefine a brand and increase sales and market share. Ford’s apparent success to date is a demonstration that at least one version of the Apple model can work in the automotive market.
Wireless Media Strategies: How Apple Changed the Market for Mobile Applications – David MacQueen – http://bit.ly/9KSuVL
Automotive Bluetooth: Profile Strategy Key to Infotainment Success – Mark Fitzgerald – http://bit.ly/9qEXbU
CES 2010: The Arrival of Converged Automotive Multimedia Products – John Canali – http://bit.ly/9gp4yo