DETROIT — Every kid in America wants one. In 2005, the Apple iPod is to music what the transistor radio was in the 1960s.
So it is only natural that auto makers, suppliers, dealers and independent audio retailers see dollar signs from a massive market emerging for personalized audio systems.
And Apple, the Cupertino, CA, company that pioneered the personal computer, appears to have another groundbreaking hit on its hands with the iPod, a digital music player no larger than a wallet and with enough memory to store up to 15,000 songs in compressed-audio format.
The iPod is for young audiophiles who want every song they like readily available in their pocket or purse, says Bob Borchers, senior director-iPod auto integration for Apple.
“People want to carry all their music with them all the time,” says Borchers, who spoke at the Auto Interiors Show, presented here by Ward's. “The challenge is to make sure the music goes with you wherever you are.”
Most young people listen to their iPods with headphones, but the auto industry recognizes the “killer ap” is to have a simple connector in the instrument panel so an iPod can be plugged in with little fuss.
The new Mercedes M-Class, for instance, has an optional dealer-installed port in the glovebox to accommodate an iPod, Borchers says.
Once plugged in, it synchs with the vehicle's audio system and provides a digital read out on the radio display of the song that is playing. The driver also can scroll through songs on the iPod without handling the actual device. Instead, the driver can use the audio system's controls, making for a clean, uncluttered cockpit, Borchers says.
The Mercedes system also charges the iPod's battery, without sapping energy from the vehicle's main battery.
Mercedes will market aggressively in Europe its iPod Interface Kit this summer — first this month with the launch of the B-Class Sports Tourer and then in July with availability in the current A-Class, C-Class and E-Class models, as well as others. The price in Germany is $230 plus installation, but does not include the iPod itself.
Mercedes is not alone. Apple also has links with BMW AG, Volvo Cars, Mini, Toyota Motor Corp.'s Scion youth brand, Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., Alfa Romeo SpA and Ferrari SpA. Each auto maker, through dealer networks worldwide, is establishing sales and installation of kits to accommodate iPods.
For now, the kits are available only as aftermarket options. Borchers tells Ward's some auto makers are considering iPod connectors as factory-installed options, but he declines to give a timetable of potential availability.
In the span of a few months, BMW sold 13,000 iPod connectors through its dealers in 2004, Borchers says. “And the company had a big backlog of orders, too,” he says.
Beyond auto dealers, independent audio retailers also are offering installation of iPod connectors from brands such as Alpine and Clarion for as little as $100, plus installation costs.
Until recently, these hardwire connectors were not available in vehicles. Early adopters of iPod had to settle for a radio-frequency link that transmitted the iPod's signal over the FM radio band. Connecting the iPod directly to the vehicle's audio system boosts sound quality dramatically, Borchers says.
As for the iPod itself, the least expensive device, the Shuffle, costs $99 and can hold about 240 songs. The $449 model, with 60 GB of storage space, holds 15,000 songs. Several models are available between the two.
Borchers says Apple does not consider satellite radio a competitor. “Sometimes you want to listen to other people's music,” he says. “And radio is a great way to discover new music.”