MOG, the music-streaming service, can now integrate with BMW’s iDrive interface.
Here are some of the problems with listening to music in your car (which is otherwise awesome):
1. Commercial radio is just awful. A limited number of songs played in endless repetition is bad enough — to then have to hear asinine ads for weight-loss and debt-reduction services on top of that makes you wish you had never been born. Public radio can be worlds better, but it’s not always consistent—and there’s always the possibility that you’ve stumbled into the minefield of boredom and haranguing that is Pledge Week.
2. Your own music can get tiresome. Whether it’s a stack of CDs in a changer or your iPod connected to your car stereo, the problem with your own music is that, well, it’s yours. You know all of it already. Now, sometimes, that’s O.K. — you want to hear your favorite songs. But you can find yourself caught in a closed circuit if you’re stuck with only the songs you’ve bought. (This is particularly true if you mostly listen to older music. I stopped getting new tracks after Eric B. & Rakim broke up.)
3. Satellite radio is good, but it also has its limits. I embraced satellite strongly and passionately when it came on the scene. Narrowly programmed, ad-free channels meant that there was a high likelihood I would enjoy what was being played while still preserving the serendipity and discovery of radio. But over the years, I think I’ve heard most everything satellite radio is going to play for me. The stations’ playlists are not ever-changing. Spend time with, say, First Wave (the New Wave channel on Sirius XM) and you’ll find yourself saying, “Please, please, please let me hear a Smiths song other than the five you play all the time.”
That’s what made my time with MOG‘s new BMW-compatible app so intriguing. MOG is an ad-free, subscription-supported online music-streaming service, like Rhapsody and Spotify. MOG has more than 13 million songs in its library. It’s not every song in the history of the cosmos, but it’s a robust and diverse collection of music. If you pay MOG $10 a month, you can get its mobile app. As of today, the iPhone version of that app now works in concert with BMW and Minis to deliver the full MOG experience on the road.
Third-party apps that are integrated into car systems are not entirely new. Pandora, the popular radiolike streaming service, has been available in many new cars. But Pandora is more like a radio station: You pick an artist, and the service plays songs from people like that artist.
MOG does more than that. For starters, you can call up any song in its library at any time. If you want to hear “No Parking On the Dance Floor” by Midnight Starr, by all means do so. If you want to pivot from there to Cherrelle’s “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On,” have at it.
You select songs and albums using BMW’s dashboard and steering-wheel controls. Furthermore, MOG’s visual interface is identical to other BMWs’ iDrive system. That’s because MOG is part of BMW’s ConnectedDrive Apps platform, which translates third-party apps into BMW’s visual language and makes them work with the knobs and buttons in the cockpit. If you know how to tune in a radio station in a BMW (no mean feat, by the way—iDrive hasn’t always been universally loved), you can use MOG.
In addition to letting you select individual songs, MOG allows you store playlists, so you can call up mixes you’ve already made from songs in its library. Not only that, you can play “featured playlists” by other users, as well as playlists created by MOG’s editorial staff and invited musicians. You can listen to John Legend’s “Favorite Philly Soul Jams” and “Cowbell Rock,” playlists that will be far more eclectic than what you find on satellite, for the most part.
MOG also takes a page from the Pandora playbook and allows you to make a radio station out of any song you are listening to. If you’ve got “Tell Me Something Good” by Rufus and Chaka Khan on, you can enable MOG’s radio mode and hear either songs only from that artist or from a range of similar artists.
Since MOG on BMW is working off the phone, it requires a wireless connection. But like other streaming-music services, it lets you store selected tracks on your phone, so they are available if you drive through a dead spot.
What’s it like to use all this? It’s pretty cool, actually. I didn’t do a whole lot of single-title searching while I was driving, because the idea of spelling out “J.U.N.G.L.E. L.O.V.E.” while going 50 m.p.h. didn’t seem smart. But if you have someone in the car with you, they can have a lot of fun playing D.J. The mixes — ones I made on MOG’s site and then used in the car or mixes from other people that show up in the menu — were a lot easier to call up and move through: if a song came on I didn’t much like, I could use my loaner BMW’s steering-wheel controls to advance to the next track.
All of this is available only to people who bought 2011 BMWs and Minis that have the BMW Apps or Mini Connection option installed. That’s not a huge number of people, but the implications of this project are wider than that. Software is a lot easier and faster to update than hardware. Technology moves a lot faster than automakers can plan: In 2006, the Lexus LS 460 was the first car to offer an internal hard drive that could store music. Its capacity was 30GB. Back in 2000, when the LS 460 was being planned, 30GB was probably a lot. But by 2006, when the $61,000 sedan was released, you could get an iPod with 80GB for $349.
When a manufacturer develops a new car, you’re talking about a cycle that can last six or seven years. BMW says it was able to go from concept to release in eight months—that’s almost unheard of in the auto industry.
What automakers are realizing is that they don’t need to provide everything themselves — they just need to create a platform for other apps. Ford is doing this with its Applink program, and you would have to imagine that other carmakers are ramping up their own plans. Music, navigation, communication — we already have all of these things in a smartphone.
To talk about all this without bringing up safety would be negligent. As Louis C.K. recently pointed out, just because we can do something does not mean we should. Is calling up a MOG playlist any more involved than tuning in a radio station? Probably not. Is getting e-mails read aloud to you more involving? Possibly. Probably. Car manufacturers will say that they are merely providing a safe way to incorporate activities people are already doing on their smartphones. But does adding new functions to a car make it safer than the alternative or just make it more appealing for people to do (i.e., does widening the highway reduce traffic or encourage more people to drive on it)?
MOG’s interactivity with BMW and Mini dashboards is an elegant, simple way to get more music you want to hear in the car. I had a blast hearing songs I hadn’t thought about in years. I think the way carmakers are thinking about technology and outsourcing it is the right way to go. I just don’t know if I may need a co-pilot to enjoy this bright new future.