By Lisa Johnston
New products on display at the American International Toy Fair, held in N
With the popularity of the Apple iPod soaring, and with Sony and others offering or planning similar portable audio devices, car audio suppliers are taking note. Some expect that car radios will soon become "iPod controllers" or "portable device controllers" just as they now control CD changers.
An "iPod controller," for example, is a car radio that offers a direct-line connection for an iPod and controls the iPod through the car radio controls. It can also display iPod functions on the car radio screen.
Alpine was the first to show such a product at CES in January with plans to launch its Alpine Interface Adapter for iPod this September. The kit will convert all Alpine Ai-Net head units into iPod controllers.
According to Stephen Witt, Alpine's marketing VP, the pre-shipment response to the adapter kit "has been overwhelming … We've received over 3,000 e-mails from consumers wanting more information."
Witt said that up to 60 percent of iPod owners use their devices in the car, according to research. Apple has reportedly sold over 3 million iPods.
OEM integrator Blitzsafe, based in Englewood N.J., may offer a similar device as early as September for both aftermarket and OEM radios. President/CEO Ira Marlowe said the company has a patent pending for iPod controls in the car. "We're working on something similar for the iPod as we did with our SkyLink Direct. You will get a docking station which gives you full folder information on the radio display and the controls are through the radio." Blitzsafe's unit will be car specific and will also be available for various aftermarket radio brands, said Marlowe. The company is hoping the product will fall under $100.
Sony said it is not currently working on portable digital audio player controls, but it may offer an ATRAC-capable head unit, which would be compatible with the new Sony Hi-MD Walkman. ATRAC compression allows users to store 45 hours of music on a 1GB disc, as used in the new Hi-MD. ATRAC compression is also available on Sony's new Connect online music service.
Many suppliers say that the iPod-type plug-and-play system makes more sense than current removable hard drive devices, like the Kenwood Music Keg.
Kenwood, while noting the innovation of the Music Keg for its time, says the company is planning to offer an interface for digital audio players in the fourth quarter. "The iPod was introduced to a pretty phenomenal response. The lesson everyone has learned is that music delivery is going to be an issue going forward, and we as an industry have to continue to evolve with it," said sales VP Keith Lehmann.
Kenwood is looking into "all types of interfaces, not just limited to the iPod," he said.
Panasonic national marketing manager Rob Lopez said, "Clearly we've seen the huge success that Apple has had with their iPod product, and we take all consumer trends into consideration. Consumers are enjoying taking their music libraries from the home to the car to gym, or hotel or on vacation. As manufacturers, we have to find ways to allow consumers to interface their music libraries to our products."
Mike Townsen, marketing VP for Pioneer, believes "iPod control" could become a common feature at a certain price point — just as MP3 and/or WMA is now available on most head units at $200 and above. Townsen said iPod or digital audio player controls should be offered at the mid-price, rather than high-price tier because of its target audience of teens and young adults — presumably with less spare cash — and because kids have already invested in the digital audio player itself, which can cost upwards of $400.
Both Pioneer and Panasonic say they are examining this market, and they expect to see a number of such "iPod controller" car audio players next year.
The Alpine Interface Adapter for iPod works with any iPod that has a dock connector, including the latest models and the iPod Mini. Suggested retail is expected to be in the $100-to-$120 range, said Alpine.
Alpine's iPod kit differs from Alpine's Versatile Link which provides an auxiliary jack for most portable audio devices, but it does not offer device controls.
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