Are in-car apps the next platform for news media companies?


After online, then mobile, and now watches and other wearables, could cars be the next battleground for the publishing industry?

It’s a question I’ve been pondering for a while, and that came to mind again with the rumours that surfaced recently about Apple’s plans for a self-driving car.

With a self-driving car, of course, you wouldn’t actually need a dedicated in-car app for your favourite newspaper. Freed from the chore of actually steering the thing and only having to hit the brakes from time to time, you could simply sit back, fire up your tablet of choice, and catch up with the latest world events while the car moved you seamlessly from point A to B.

But while the self-driving car exists in prototype form and has proven to be far safer than anything with a human being at the wheel, it’s likely to be a good few years before it’s commonplace on the streets of London, New York, or anywhere else for that matter.

So what’s available now for car drivers eager for their news fix? As far as I can see, not a lot, if anything at all. Ford has been one of the prime movers in the in-car app market, and, a few years ago, became the first car maker to exhibit at the mobile industry’s annual jamboree, Mobile World Congress in Spain.

Yet, when you look at the top apps available for Ford’s Sync in-car app system, you see the likes of Spotify, Goal (live football scores), Aupeo! (personal radio), and Glimpse (location sharing). There is not a sign of an audio version of a newspaper app, though Audioteka, an audiobook app, is featured.

Maybe it is as someone running a mobile marketing agency said to me a few years ago when business was not as good as he would have liked it: Companies find it difficult to handle two revolutions at once. At that time, he said, brands were still trying to get a handle on the Internet; mobile was one more thing to worry about that they didn’t have time for.

News media publishers trying to handle the transition from print to Web – and mobile and wearables and who knows what other connected devices – could perhaps be forgiven for putting the car somewhere toward the bottom of what is becoming a very long list.

Maybe the economics just don’t currently stack up. It takes work to create an audiobook, converting text to speech, but at least if it is converted once, it can be sold many times.

Newspapers, by their very nature, change by the day, and, indeed, several times a day, so it may simply not be feasible for a publisher to issue a daily edition in audio form for the number of people prepared to pay for it.

But I wonder, as speech-to-text (and text-to-speech) technology evolves in line with processing power, how far we are away from in-car newspaper apps. They would certainly present publishers with some challenges, like how to navigate the app when your eyes need to be fixed on the road, effectively blinding users to visual navigation of the app.

But there would be opportunities also: audio ads targeting users based on the type of content they consume on the app and their current location, for example. Not to mention prompts such as: “Say ‘yes’ now to have this story e-mailed to your inbox,” which would mail the story, along with links to other stories, eventually driving traffic back to the newspaper’s Web site.

Maybe once you turn a newspaper into an audio paper, the lines between what a newspaper and rolling news station are blur too much. Nonetheless, I would be surprised if someone, somewhere doesn’t try, or isn’t about to try, something soon.

After all, many of those brands that were struggling to get mobile a few years ago are in a much better place now than they were then. For publishers, the car is just another place where a lot of people spend a lot of time. Why not share the journey with them?


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