PARIS (Reuters) - Parrot, an upstart French technology company, is betting that drivers want their cars to be fitted with an all-in-one "infotainment" device based on Google's popular Android operating software to give hands-free control of its smartphone, radio, music and satellite navigation functions.
Best known for hands-free car phone kits, Parrot has spent the last three years and tens of millions of euros developing the first-ever car radio based on Google's Android, gambling that it will become a must-have for drivers wanting more than just a good stereo system and a cradle for their smartphones.
Instead, the 250 million-euro ($312 million) company believes they will want its voice-controlled, multi-purpose "Asteroid" radio, the first version of which it launched last year. The company says it has sold between 20,000 and 25,000 radios so far to individual buyers for around $290.
The current version features relatively few apps but Android's "open-source" platform means that any software developer can modify the code of existing apps to adapt them to the car as well as create and share new apps that might appeal specifically to drivers and as first-mover this could be a potential "game changer" for Parrot, said Roger Lanctot, associate director for the global automotive practice at Strategy Analytics.
To this end Parrot has now made a software development kit available online for developers, inviting them to create new apps around the themes of geolocation, driving assistance, contact management and music.
"Because they embraced it early, they certainly have some advantages in terms of their experience in working with Android and apps-based platforms in a system in a car," Lanctot said.
But it still faces seemingly daunting odds in taking on audio specialists like Harman International, Pioneer and JVC-Kenwood as well as GPS satellite navigation manufacturers such as Garmin and Tomtom and is now hoping to get major automakers to pre-install its Android-powered technology in their new car models.
"It's a market that will be battled over by a huge number of people," Eric Beaudet, analyst at Natixis said. "Undoubtedly, this is a market that will develop very quickly."
Parrot, which was hitherto an indirect supplier to major carmakers including Toyota, Renault, BMW and Volkswagen by providing the microchips necessary to component companies such as Delphi, Siemens VDO and Visteon, could now find itself rivaling those partners by becoming what is called a Tier-1 or direct supplier to carmakers.
"The Android proposition is something new and different because most of the Tier 1 suppliers have not really embraced Android. So this very much sets Parrot apart," Lanctot said.
"Their focus on Android does put them in a position to be a Tier 1 candidate, he said."
Following the launch of its first Asteroid radio in the consumer market last year Parrot now hopes to persuade carmakers to adopt it directly as well.
"They already have a foot in the door with all those carmakers and have good relationships with car parts and radio makers," Thomas Delhaye, analyst at Genesta Equity and Bond Research said.
In September Parrot will release three new products within the same range that work with any smartphone brand, hoping to get a stronger foothold in the market ahead of the expected arrival of fourth generation (4G) mobile networks in 2013-14.
And the company has also won agreements from two as yet un-named carmakers who want to use its Android-based technology in their new car models, Parrot's founder and chief executive Henri Seydoux told Reuters in an interview.
"After preaching in a desert for a long time, it so happens that now the automakers find that it is a quite interesting difference to have a good multimedia system," he said.
"We tell them: 'this is one thing, but a system under Android is even better'."
Although analysts say Parrot is likely to remain a secondary player in the automotive market its first-mover advantage in deploying Android could still give it a worthwhile share of such a large market for in-car devices.
Revenue from 'infotainment' systems sold to carmakers is expected to reach $36 billion dollars by 2016, up from $23 billion last year, according to Strategy Analytics research. Including the after-market, it is expected to rise to $47 billion in 2016.
But Parrot has to move fast to maintain its lead. Later this year French carmaker Renault is due to release in partnership with satellite navigation device maker Tomtom an Android-based integrated tablet computer.
"I don't believe they (Parrot) will ever be the market-leader, they are too small and it would require tens, or even hundreds of millions of euros in investments and they don't have those kind of resources," Beaudet said.
"But even if they grab only a small share, they have an attractive growth trajectory ahead of them," he added.
Parrot, which has no factories and only sub-contractors to make the radios and the chips it designs, says it invested 30 million euros over the past three years developing its Asteroid technology, encouraged by the proven success of Android in smartphones.
"The effort deployed by Google to make Android is huge and far exceeds anything the automotive industry does to make connected products, so adapting this effort to the car, we believe, has fantastic added value," Seydoux said.
Parrot declined to provide precise forecasts of potential revenue from its Android-based technology, but Seydoux said the group was hoping for growth of more than 20 percent per year.
"We have an Apple-like or even Google-like strategy. We do not care about having one client, or a specific revenue, as long as we believe in it," Seydoux said.
Parrot's shares, which were listed in 2006, are up 4.7 percent since the start of the year, valuing Parrot at 223 million euros, though they are still down 22 percent from their IPO price.
Editing by Greg Mahlich