For years, industry pundits waited for General Motors' OnStar unit to strike back at Ford Motor Co.'s Sync infotainment system. Now GM is on the attack -- but OnStar isn't the weapon.
Instead, GM is rolling out infotainment systems tailored to its four brands. Chevrolet's MyLink will deliver texting, e-mail and music files through drivers' smart phones. Ditto for Buick and GMC's recently unveiled IntelliLink system. Look for a Cadillac announcement soon.
So where does that leave OnStar?
OnStar President Linda Marshall says GM decided to preserve OnStar's industry-leading reputation for safety. Adding features such as streaming music risked cluttering OnStar, which has strong brand recognition despite being overshadowed in recent years by Sync.
"We never want to deviate from what OnStar does," she says. "We don't want safety and security to be seen as entertainment."
GM believes selling OnStar in addition to separate infotainment brands gives GM a dual threat. Consumers want the ability to use their application-laden smart phones while behind the wheel, a la Sync. And today more than half of GM customers are willing to pay for OnStar, which offers crash notification, turn-by-turn navigation and hands-free calling.
GM hasn't released pricing for the infotainment packages. IntelliLink will come standard on the Buick Verano, which arrives late this year.
In January, GM CEO Dan Akerson gave OnStar responsibility to Marshall, with whom he worked during the late 1990s when he was CEO at Nextel Communications Inc. Marshall says there are no plans to abandon OnStar's subscription model. It's free for six months, or one year for Cadillac customers, and costs $199 a year for a base subscription after that.
Putting GM's infotainment offerings under separate names offers Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick and GMC "flexibility in what they want to offer in their entertainment systems," Marshall says.
Mike Bowsher, Buick-GMC's representative on GM's National Dealer Council, says many dealers will welcome the approach.
"I think it's a good idea for each brand to have its own infotainment system that can be marketed individually and sold alongside OnStar," Bowsher says.
Still, rolling out MyLink, IntelliLink and other brands in GM vehicles risks diluting the OnStar name, says Michael Sena, a tele-matics consultant in Sweden.
"OnStar is a really strong brand today," Sena says. "The danger is that the overall OnStar picture could be lost for consumers who feel like all they need is the smart phone capabilities."
Marshall also says GM chose to keep OnStar a safety-only brand because of its new retail strategy.
This spring, OnStar began selling its system on rearview mirrors sold by Best Buy and other retailers as a way to grow its subscription base through non-GM customers.