INTERNET RADIO LOOKS TO BE THE NEXT infotainment battleground inside the automobile, and Palo Alto, CA-based TuneIn is positioning itself for a bigger piece of the action.

The global Internet-radio aggregation service already is available on 2011 BMW and Mini models, in North America, and TuneIn says it also is talking about potential licensing deals with other OEMs.

To carve out a bigger piece of the auto industry's growing penchant for in-car entertainment, TuneIn will have to beat out similar service providers such as iHeartRadio for dashboard real estate and indirect competitors such as Sirius XM Satellite Radio and customized internet-based music service Pandora.

TuneIn, founded nine years ago in Dallas initially as a digital-recording service for radio (similar to what TiVo is to television) and now a part of RadioTime in Palo Alto, believes it has a step up on its rivals because of the breadth of its Internet-radio coverage and the growing popularity of its program guide app with smartphone and tablet users.

The developer says its software, which tracks the content of more than 50,000 radio stations in 140 countries, now is the most downloaded paid music app on iTunes. “It's super popular all around the globe,” founder and CEO Bill Moore says. “We are going to have a launch in September and announce numbers, but it's in the tens of millions.”

TuneIn works like a program guide for TV, allowing users to quickly view on their smartphone or tablet, such as an iPad, a list of broadcast radio stations in the area or find a station somewhere in the world currently playing a favorite artist, program or genre of music.

Users interested in listening to French-language broadcasts can call up a list of radio stations streaming programming from France, for example. TuneIn says it now offers radio content in 173 languages and functions in 23 languages, including Hindi, its newest addition.

Type in “Led Zeppelin,” and a list of stations currently playing a song from the band will pop up. (For now, spelling counts, but Moore says TuneIn is working on software that will be more intuitive so users won't have to know how many P's are in Zeppelin.)

The directory can be sorted by region of the world and country and by type of programming, such as sports-talk radio or classic rock. It can locate a station with a specific on-air personality and, based on what the user is listening to, suggest other stations with similar content.

Because the service is global, an auto maker can adapt the technology once for use in vehicles sold worldwide.

In BMW's case, connections to Internet streaming of radio stations are made through the occupant's cell phone, but the application is controlled via the car's radio head unit and iDrive system.

BMW calls the feature either BMW Connected or Mini Connected depending on the marque, but TuneIn says in future contracts with the German auto maker and other car companies, it will insist on including the TuneIn brand, a sign of the company's growing confidence its name is gaining traction in the consumer-electronics market.

“As it gets more popular…(even) BMW is hearing this now: ‘How do I get TuneIn in my car? It's my favorite application,’” Moore says.

A Mini spokeswoman says the take rate on the Mini Connected option, new this year, is running at about 18%. BMW says it is too soon to gage take rates on BMW Connected, available as a $250 option since March.

TuneIn's business model is still emerging. Its smartphone/tablet app is free, although a $0.99- upgrade allows users to pause streaming audio and record several hours of programming.

Moore is reluctant to detail too much about the privately held company's financial outlook ahead of an initial public offering that's eyed, saying only that TuneIn is operating at breakeven today from licensing fees, website display ads and app downloads.

But he sees the big play centered on a service allowing a radio station in one market to direct ads specifically to TuneIn users listening elsewhere.

“It's a big opportunity,” Moore says. “Radio is a $40 billion business around the globe. Everybody listens. It's 17 hours a week in the U.S. per adult.”

Because the TuneIn car application relies on cellular technology to connect with the Internet, users will have to make sure their data plans are robust enough or risk paying additional usage fees, though Moore contends a majority would find typical cell-phone monthly plans sufficient.