As good as Sirius XM Radio (Nasdaq: SIRI ) is today -- with record subscriber levels, low churn, and high conversation rates -- it'll be even better by the end of the year.
Sirius XM 2.0 is coming before the 2011 holidays, expanding on the platform's already broad content and offering enhanced interactive features. But in the face of growing competition, will this upgrade be enough?
Toyota (NYSE: TM ) unveiled its Entune multimedia system last week, and I proposed that it'll leave a bit of a dent in Sirius XM's fortunes. The ability for Toyota drivers with smartphones to use voice command and in-vehicle controls to hear terrestrial radio stations from all over the county, stream Pandora's custom-tailored playlists, and even make restaurant or movie reservations will be huge.
Rival automakers haven't rested on their laurels. They announced numerous nifty goodies during last week's Consumer Electronics Show, all of which promise to leave the average dashboard looking pretty crowded.
Moving forward, beyond Toyota
Ford (NYSE: F ) is making Sync AppLink a preinstalled feature on its 2012 model year Mustangs. Forget about Sync's tune-ripping hard drive, or AppLink's ability to play Pandora. In this year's big news, drivers can tap Twitter updates through OpenBeak and stream news updates or their favorite podcasts through Stitcher.
General Motors (NYSE: GM ) will offer OnStar -- which can even read back Facebook updates these days -- as an aftermarket installation on cars it didn't build.
Even the seemingly sleepy Hyundai is waking up, taking on GM's OnStar in the telematics space with its Blue Link platform. And yes, BlueLink will also let drivers update Facebook statuses and use speech-to-text technology for distraction-free texting on the road.
The carmakers aren't alone in rolling out such innovations. Research in Motion's (Nasdaq: RIMM ) QNX subsidiary showed off its mobile office solution, which among its many features will read back emails on a BlackBerry.
In short, listening to the radio will no longer be the only way to fend off boredom during long drives. Folks behind the wheel will have podcasts to stream, Twitter feeds to check, and emails to listen to. This multitasking will be great for consumers trying to make the most of their previously idle time, but amid all these new activities, satellite -- and especially terrestrial -- radio could have a hard time standing out.
The evolution of satellite radio
No technology is permanent. Sirius XM shareholders should be grateful that CEO Mel Karmazin isn't taking the dashboard convergence of tomorrow lightly.
Satellite radio won't be a transitory technology if Sirius XM can stay one step ahead of the pack. Karmazin's been pumping up the prospects of Sirius XM 2.0, even if the technology may get in the way of near-term sales, as savvy consumers forgo upgrades now to wait for 2.0 models later this year. Let's hope the new system is better than advertised.
Sirius XM has revealed few details about its platform upgrade. We do know that the new receivers will be able to pull in more content. If that programming is compelling and original, great. If it simply means more music channels, the 2.0 platform will butt heads against Pandora and smaller music-discovery sites.
On the interactivity front, Sirius XM 2.0 will likely include easier ways to crank out stock quotes, sport scores, and weather. Keep in mind, though, that there are smartphone apps for all of these things. Garmin (Nasdaq: GRMN ) will already be banging its head against the wall as automakers roll out free turn-by-turn navigation apps.
In short, a premium service must be considerably better than what's freely available. It must also be compelling enough to keep drivers listening to Sirius or XM in the face of the growing number of other ways they can keep themselves entertained behind the wheel.
Sirius XM fans have typically dismissed Pandora and Stitcher because of their steep learning curves, the iffy connectivity of mobile broadband, and the arrival of tiered data plans. Well, the automakers are dumbing down the learning curve, all of the major carriers are blanketing the country in 4G, and a funny thing happened on the road to tiered data plans.
Verizon Wireless will reportedly announce the anxiously anticipated arrival of the iPhone on its network -- supposedly with an unlimited data plan. That would buck the trend that AT&T (NYSE: T ) started back in June. If consumers -- not carriers -- once more start calling the shots, AT&T could soon have to retreat if it wants to compete.
In short, in a year or two, many of the criticisms against wireless dashboard entertainment could be all but silenced.
Gartner analyst Thilo Koslowski tells The Wall Street Journal that half of all new premium vehicles in the county will support apps within two years.
This obviously doesn't mean that Sirius XM is toast. It didn't arrive at 20 million subscribers and consistent profitability as a fluke. However, just as satellite radio is superior to dashboard alternatives today, it will have to make sure that Sirius XM 2.0 raises the bar higher than where the industry will be in a model year or two.
Sirius XM can do it. It has the momentum. It has the proprietary content. The satellite service must simply make sure that it doesn't underestimate its challengers.