Facebook's newest frontier: inside the car
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - At restaurants, at movies and at the office, checking Facebook has become a regular habit for many of the Internet social network's more than 800 million users.
Now that habit has reached a new frontier: the automobile.
Mercedes-Benz USA is bringing Facebook to its cars, with a special version of the service that is built-in to a new in-vehicle telematics system that will be unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week.
Accessing Facebook on the road is not the exactly the same as using the social network on a personal computer or a smartphone. The version of Facebook offered in Daimler AG's Mercedes is stripped down to a limited set of features, specially designed for drivers and centered around the locations of friends and businesses.
But according to Facebook Vice President of Partnerships and Platform Marketing Dan Rose, the Mercedes version of Facebook reflects the social networking service's expansion to a growing list of settings where screens and Internet connections are available.
"Now that cars have screens that are intelligent, you would expect that more and more car manufacturers will want to make those screens capable of allowing people to connect with their friends and take advantage of the social context that comes along with that," Rose said in an interview.
"One of the core things that people do on their screens in the car is GPS navigation and the ability to see which of your friends are nearby is something we think will be really interesting for people."
He noted Facebook is also increasingly being integrated into televisions, with various TV manufacturers expected to showcase built-in Facebook integration at CES. DirectTV will show off a new social TV app with Facebook capabilities at CES, allowing people to share what they are watching and to add commentary.
But unlike television sets, offering Facebook in motor vehicles involves critical safety considerations, particularly at a time when lawmakers and safety advocates are increasingly focused on distracted driving.
Robert Policano, Mercedes' Product Manager for Telematics Services said the service is no more distracting than a standard in-car navigation system or radio. Any Facebook activity that requires a user to enter text is disabled while the car is in motion, he said.
The Facebook application displays a variety of standard, pre-written postings that a driver can publish on Facebook with quick taps or turns of a knob.
If a particular destination is already entered into the car's navigation system, the driver can automatically publish a Facebook posting stating they are en route to that destination, along with an estimated time of arrival, based on the current traffic patterns.
Drivers can also quickly access a list of friends that are nearby, or restaurants in the vicinity that their friends have "liked" on Facebook.
The Mercedes Facebook offering is the result of a collaboration between the two companies that started about six months ago, according to Policano. A Mercedes engineering team based in Palo Alto actually built the Facebook application, with input from Facebook on various aspects.
Facebook is one of several specially designed apps, including Google Inc and Yelp, that Mercedes drivers can flip between by turning a knob.
The apps are part of Mercedes new mbrace2 telematics system, which features a high-resolution color screen near the dashboard and a high-speed wireless Internet connection.
The mbrace2 system will be available with the launch of the 2013 SL-Class Mercedes in the Spring. The company plans to make it a standard feature on all Mercedes 2013 models that will roll out throughout the year.
One popular Facebook feature that Mercedes drivers will not get, however, is the ability to play social games such as Zynga Inc's Farmville. Mercedes' version of Facebook does not support third-party apps.
(Editing by Andre Grenon)