Spotify Car Thing

Spotify has been working on its ‘Car Thing’ smart speaker for some time now. The streaming service first talked about it in May 2019, when it began testing the in-car device with some American users.

A recent filing with the US Federal Communications Commission revealed how the device was evolving, but today it’s going on sale. Well, we say on sale…

Car Thing is getting a limited release in the US on an invitation-only basis for some Spotify subscribers, and they’ll only have to pay shipping costs to get one.

The device uses Spotify’s new ‘Hey Spotify’ voice controls, which recently launched for the streaming service’s smartphone app. It also has a touchscreen display and a big, radio-style knob to navigate between music and podcasts.

In an online press event yesterday, Car Thing’s marketing lead Sara Kayden talked about data showing that cars are the second most popular location for listening to audio in the US, but stressed that the device is intended to complement existing in-car entertainment systems rather than to replace them.

It comes with a choice of three mounts to fix the device in place depending on the driver’s car, and can pair with multiple Spotify subscribers’ smartphones to play music and podcasts – for example a family travelling together.

Car Thing

Certain content – playlists for example – can be set as ‘presets’ for Car Thing, which automatically downloads them for offline use to save on mobile data costs.

“This [offline features] is something that we know quite a few people will ask for, so this is something that will evolve over time,” said Spotify’s head of hardware products Andreas Cedborg at the event.

Spotify’s execs declined to say how many units they are making available for the US launch, and the company is not revealing any of its plans for international distribution yet.

Competitors? There aren’t that many smart speakers designed specifically for in-car use, but standard in-car entertainment systems have one or more ways to connect smartphones to play music: from line-in ports to Bluetooth.

Meanwhile, Apple and Google both have software designed to be installed on those systems by manufacturers – CarPlay and Android Auto respectively – which work with people’s smartphones and their music streaming apps.

Spotify also has partnerships with a number of automotive firms to integrate its service with their in-car systems, including BMW, Tesla, Volvo and Volkswagen.

Arguably, then, there isn’t really a pressing problem to be solved by Car Thing. People who want to play Spotify while driving likely have several options if they’ve got a relatively recent car and/or entertainment system.

Cedborg noted yesterday that “the average age of a car in the US is actually 11 years old” as a way to point out that many people don’t have that, and so may be tempted by Car Thing.

However, the low-profile rollout for the device points to the real problem that it’s trying to solve: a problem for Spotify rather than for consumers, of the company’s dependence on other technology firms’ devices to reach its listeners.

If Spotify’s long-term answer to that is to make its own hardware, Car Thing will be an important way to test the waters, from hardware supply-chain logistics to data on how people use the device, laying the groundwork for its future strategy.

(Including pricing? Today’s ‘free apart from shipping’ cost is described as being “for a set time” only. We wonder if there might be scope in the future for Spotify to bundle this and any similar devices – a ‘Home Thing’ for example – into a more expensive monthly subscription. But, of course, it could simply choose to sell such devices for upfront fees.)

“This is Spotify’s first hardware, and you can see we obviously want to get this right, and we want to learn quite a lot,” said Cedborg. “This is just early days for us,” added Kayden.

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Stuart Dredge

Music Ally's Head of Insight

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