For online radio service Pandora, the car was a logical place to take their web app. At a SXSW Interactive panel on connected cars, Jessica Steel of Pandora noted that radio is already a well established experience inside a car. "50% of all radio listening happens in the car," she said, so it was "a really important strategic destination" to bring Pandora into the vehicle.

This is the fourth post in our series looking at how the user experience (UX) of consuming media has changed with the increasing popularity of devices other than the PC. So far we've looked at music on smartphones, news apps on the iPad and RSS Readers on smartphones. Today we go well outside the traditional PC world, where the Web has only just begun to make inroads: the car.

Pandora inside cars is an extension of its usage on smartphones. The app itself actually runs on a smartphone, although the user interaction is handled within the car dashboard - care of technology provided by car manufacturers like Ford and Chevrolet.


Image: Chevrolet MyLink

Pandora: From the Web to Smartphones to Cars

Jessica Steel, EVP of Business and Corporate Development at Pandora, explained the evolution. Pandora launched in 2005 as a Web browser service. After that, smartphones were an important extension for the company - beginning from when the iPhone was launched in 2007. On any given day now, she continued, "half of peoples' listening [on Pandora] is happening on a smartphone."

There are over 50 million people using Pandora on a smartphone, according to Steel, and "they're carrying that experience into the car." The company's challenge is to make listening to Pandora in the car "as seamless as interacting with radio in the car has always been."

To do this Pandora has invested in partnerships, such as Ford Sync, Chevrolet MyLink and others. The aim is to take the "command and control" of the app the user is carrying on their smartphone and "move it back into the head unit [of the car] - where it belongs." So from the dashboard of the car, the user can pull up the station list, select a station, thumb up a song, discover music and more. Here's a video demonstration from Ford (it starts off by demonstrating the old method, then moves to the newer dashboard integrated technology):

Although features like thumbing up or down a song aren't necessarily mandated by Pandora for their partners to include, both Ford and Chevrolet provide the main Pandora features. The only real difference is that the app is 'driven' from the dashboard, rather than the phone.

Development Environment Isn't Easy

Although we're focusing on the user experience in this series, it's worth pointing out that it takes a lot more effort to bring web apps into an environment like the car. The development platform in any given car is usually not as simple as on a smartphone like Android.

Steel explained that for just a single car line for one automotive OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer), there may be 3 or 4 suppliers that Pandora needs to work with to make the product work.

"It's a big investment" in terms of engineering resources and effort, but "there's nothing more strategic" right now to Pandora than to make that investment.

Driver & Passenger Safety

A big part of the SXSW panel on connected cars was about how to ensure the safety of users in the car. As we all know, smartphones and other Internet-connected devices can be a distraction from other activities. Nick Pudar, VP of Business Development at OnStar (a subsidiary of GM), commented that driver distraction is a key issue with car apps.

Because radio was already a mainstay in the vehicle, Pandora felt that they were not pushing new behavior. However, Jessica Steel emphasized that interactions have to be as seamless for Pandora in the car, as on a traditional car radio. To do this the company invested in a technology it called Pandora Link. Steel explained that this "allows the manufacturers of radio head units to write the software to take over control of the phone; and put the command and control of Pandora back into the head unit."

Here's Pandora integrated, in the latest touchscreen format, inside Chevrolet cars (skip to 1:20 for the demo):

It's interesting to note that Pandora itself doesn't control the user interaction of its app inside the car. In fact, the OEMs are the ones making the decisions about user interaction for Pandora in the car. This implies that the user experience is slightly different in each model of car, which is an issue that web apps in cars will need to be wary of. Inconsistent user experience has traditionally been a common form of frustration for consumers in the computing world.

Conclusion: Get Ready For Hundreds of Connected Devices!

The car is just one example of real-world objects becoming increasingly connected to the Internet, part of a trend we track closely at ReadWriteWeb called the Internet of Things. Indeed, Pandora is already on "200 plus home consumer electronics devices," according to Jessica Steel. Including a refrigerator!

Do you use Pandora inside your car? If so we'd love to know about your user experience, in the comments.