January 8, 2016
t's time for my annual column from CES, so, naturally, I'm going to start it out with something that happened to me almost a month ago.
I bought a car. I'd been driving an old, old car, and it was on its last legs, or wheels, I suppose. I got tired of duct-taping the liner on the driver's side door to keep it from falling off, I got tired of oil leaks, I got tired of... actually, I got tired of everything associated with a decidedly non-classic 16 year old car. And that's how we ended up way the hell down in Irvine one night last month, buying a car.
Wait, I'm getting to the point. I'd put an aftermarket radio in the old car, so I had the basics -- AM/FM, Bluetooth, even, yes, HD Radio -- but I did not have what they are unironically calling an "infotainment system" in that car. This one, however, does have exactly that. I think the owner's manual even calls it an infotainment system. I still don't think that's a real word. But it has the requisite large video screen, it has satellite and HD and Bluetooth and even an LCD animated dashboard instead of physical gauges. It looks cool, that's for sure.
It's also a pain in the butt and confusing and not at all intuitive. I'm a tech-friendly person, I almost never have to consult a manual to get even complicated devices up and running, and I'm continually baffled by the audio system on this car. There's a thumbwheel on the steering wheel, there's some kind of voice command system access to which is a mystery to me, there's phone control except you have to drill way, way down in menus to find contacts and good luck finding your speed dial selections... and just dialing up an FM or AM station is awkward, sending you flying past where you want to be, bringing up HD2 and HD3 channels except when it doesn't... it's just hard to use, and the dealer didn't really offer any instruction, the manual doesn't quite cover everything, and while I love having new whiz-bang features, using them is another story.
Which brings me to CES, the "connected car," and where we stand now. First, let's get this out of the way: If and when the driverless, autonomous car shows up, it changes what people will be able to do while in motion, and what we'll probably see is people behaving the way they do on buses and trains and planes, listening to and reading on their mobile devices. The "connected car" stuff and the "digital dash" will be more about controlling car functions with your phone than it will be about what entertainment you'll get from the dashboard. But that's still a ways off, and even if it's perfected tomorrow (and it won't be), it'll take years before there's a critical mass of autonomous cars on the road. We'll cross that bridge a long time from now.
In the meantime, yeah, you'll still get your "infotainment" from the dash. The "connected car" hype is interesting to me in that cars have been connected for years now via Bluetooth and were even more connected a few years ago when auto manufacturers thought they had to put a 3G dongle in every car and make you sign up for another AT&T account. (Or OnStar, which was connection before "connected.") But being on that dashboard will be important to all audio providers, and that's why things like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are more critical than you think. It goes back to the user interface, what's presented to the driver when he or she gets behind the wheel. And it goes back to my car and what I got when I turned the key... er, pushed the ignition button (I am NOT used to that AT ALL): confusion. There are no standards, and if you've rented a car lately and couldn't figure out how to just find a station or pair your phone, you know what that means.
What this means for traditional radio is simple: It's increasingly more difficult to use radio content in vehicles, because the systems have moved from turn-it-on-and-there-you-are to non-intuitive UIs with lots of choices. Radio's losing, little by little, one of its strategic advantages, ease of use. I swear, between the "dial" with a list of frequencies accompanied by the remnants of past, garbled RDS messages, to the way HD2 and HD3 channels appear and disappear on that list, to the additional button pushes it takes just to get to that list, it makes you just want to drive in silence. The consolation is that it's also cumbersome to use streaming services or podcasts through the system and phone as well.
And that's why the user interface is critical. If radio wants to continue to be a significant -- maybe the most significant -- entertainment player on the dash, it has to be as easy to access as it has been for the last century. And that means the industry making sure that it's not just getting its apps on the dash, but making it easy for listeners to find what they want without a lot of menus and drilling down and confusion. That means you might want individual icons for stations instead of aggregators that just make users have to remember that, say, KIIS is on iHeartRadio and Amp is on Radio.com. You might want to work with the manufacturers not just for your apps but on how the radio dial appears and on what metadata shows up when someone happens upon a particular station (I STILL can't figure out how to wipe that garbled RDS stuff off my system). In short, it's not just being on the dash that counts, it's how people come upon your product and how easy it is for them to use it.
The technology I saw at CES remains pretty amazing. But anyone who's been baffled by complicated menus and remotes and "smart" options when all they wanted to do was watch a TV show would agree with me that the most incredible tech is useless if the learning curve is too steep or the way to access what you want is too confusing. Maybe there should be a big technology and entertainment convention concentrating on nothing but usability. I'd go to that one, too.
And with that, I'm back for another year. Also back is All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics, with news items and kickers and bad jokes for your show prep needs, available by clicking here and at the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics with every story individually linked to the appropriate item.
We'll be adding new features to the new Podcasting section at AllAccess.com/podcasts, where I've added a new post this week. And this week, it's "10 Questions With..." me. I'm not joking. Well, there ARE jokes, but it's something I last did seven years ago, sort of a State of the Industry session, and if you're interested in what I say here, there's plenty more of it in the 10 Questions.
Full Disclosure: I also serve as Director of Programming for Nerdist Industries, which includes the Nerdist Podcast Network, one of your major podcast entities.
Happy New Year, by the way. It's late for you, but my year doesn't feel like it starts until CES is over and I'm back on the usual schedule. And now I am. So Happy New Year. Feel free to drop a ball or something.