Why Apple Should Make Car Entertainment Systems

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Car makers next year will begin selling vehicles that support Apple’s new system for connecting iPhones to the in-car entertainment systems built into the dash.

Nice, but it doesn’t go far enough. Here’s why Apple should start building the in-car entertainment systems themselves.

A new setting popped up in the iOS 7.1 beta 2 (released for developers) that would enable users to turn on or off “Car Display” in the “Restrictions” category of “General.” The icon next to the switch shows a grey version of the same steering wheel as the one on the iOS in the Car (iOSitC) section of Apple’s “What’s New” page.

The new control in this version suggests that Apple may release iOS in the Car (iOSitC) product sooner than some expected. Apple announced iOSitC at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference on June 10.

(There are other references to iOS in the Car (iOSitC) showing up elsewhere in the beta versions.)

Apple had previously announced that its iOSitC product would launch (in partnership with a few car makers) some time in 2014.

The iOSitC feature will enable you to connect an iPhone or an iPad to the in-car entertainment system and screen designed and built by the car maker. That connection can be USB cable or Bluetooth. Connecting triggers the car’s display to show your device’s icons and apps. From the car dash, you can use the car maker’s display or Siri voice commands to get Maps directions, control music (which is played over the car’s speakers) answer the phone and get and respond to incoming messages.

The initiative greatly increases the integration of Apple stuff in car dashboards beyond the current program, called Siri Eyes Free.

It also increases the number of car makers playing ball with Apple. Here’s a complete list of companies selling or planning to sell cars with either iOSitC or Siri Eyes Free support, in alphabetical order (from Wikipedia): Acura, Audi, BMW, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Ferrari, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Infiniti, Jaguar, Kia, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Opel, Toyota and Volvo.

Apple CEO Tim Cook says iOSitC is “very, very important” to Apple.

Astonishingly, a report by ABI Research predicts that within five years half the 35 million or so cars that ship in the United States supporting smartphone integrated entertainment systems will support Apple’s iOSitC.

The other half will be dominated by MirrorLink (nearly 44% of the market), which is developed by Car Connectivity Consortium (CCC), an organization “dedicated to developing global standards for smartphone in-car connectivity.”

In other words, the future of in-car smartphone-integrated dashboards will be divided between Apple and its closed and exclusive system and “everyone else,” if the ABI report pans out.

The Apple system is closed. But it’s not closed enough. I think Apple’s next step should be to design and build the in-dash systems themselves and do it in a way that doesn’t require a smartphone.

Why Apple Should Build Car Entertainment Systems

Back when the idea of using a mobile phone to listen to music was somewhat exotic and far from universal, Apple partnered with Motorola to develop the Rokr phone, which Steve Jobs introduced as an “iTunes Phone.”

The phone, which shipped in 2005, sucked. And it didn’t seriously change the general trajectory of users embracing phones for listening to music.

To me, enabling car companies to build the entertainment system and parts of the user interface while Apple designs the software interface and also backend functionality is very roughly comparable to the Rokr phone idea.

Apple wins through tight integration, a benefit generally lost when they try to partner with other companies on the total user experience.

Instead, Apple should build the hardware and software of the in-dash unit itself.

This system should be able to function without a smartphone in the car. Ideally, it would connect with your home WiFi network when parked in front of the house, connecting to iCloud and downloading songs, podcasts, maps and other stuff.

Optionally, it should connect to an iPhone or any Bluetooth enabled phone for Internet connectivity.

The reason for this is that requiring an iPhone to use the Apple-created parts of the in-dash system is a missed opportunity. It might be a show-stopper at the car dealership for non-Apple or mixed families.

Even more to the point, giving non-iPhone users a sweet Apple interface in their cars might function as another gateway drug into the Apple universe.

For users, an in-car entertainment system needs above all to be a polished, ultra simple and highly useable device. Open systems are nice, and I love Android, but Apple interfaces tend to be more suitable for car dashboards. It doesn’t matter what your phone is, the Apple interface will still be great and should be able to use any phone’s data connection.

I have no idea what kind of in-car entertainment system Jony Ive and his design team, as well as Apple’s larger engineering staff, might design. But I suspect the difference between the iOSitC approach and the Apple created approach might be comparable in user experience to the Rokr vs. the iPhone.

Also: Apple has some very useful patented technology that might benefit an in-dash system. Apple’s curved-glass touch screen innovations and their raised-surface technologies come to mind.

Apple’s biggest challenge in this market is the mind-blowingly long development cycles of a car industry where cars are actually designed years before hitting the market. For example, if an Apple-made dashboard system hit the market today, it might have been based on Apple technology that predates the first iPad. Yecch!

Critics say Apple lacks expertise in automotive design, manufacturing, law and integration.

I made a similar argument before Apple entered the smartphone handset market, and I was totally wrong. Apple has proved it can enter a new market and quickly master it.

In fact, Apple is miles ahead of (or simply better than) the car industry in other areas, including user interface design, innovation in compute-hardware manufacturing processes, app development ecosystem cultivation and designing, and building computers and mobile systems in general.

Oh, and one other thing: Apple is incredibly good at the organization of design, engineering and manufacturing.

A section of the recently published book Jony Ive, by Leander Kahney (full disclosure: Kahney is the publisher of Cult of Mac), describes Apple’s incredibly meticulous and detailed documentation of every step of the product development process, as well as the company’s mastery of “concurrent engineering” — the engineering of the many systems in a complex product in parallel, rather than serially.

Instead of Apple being hampered by the car industry’s slow process for product development, Apple might actually help them overcome it.

The big picture is that Apple is in the business of perfecting the content consumption user experience. As as long as they have to rely on the car industry for half the product, it will never be an Apple-quality experience.

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  • notoakie

    since most apps and icloud rely on internet access, i think Apple making a connected, in-car entertainment platform that’s independent of iPhone would not be the best of ideas. i think making a system that is simply a display with amplifier, AM/FM radio and 1 or 2 AUX inputs/outputs designed to mirror an iPhone or other internet capable iOS device would be optimal.

    it would work as easily as possible with the iOS in the car functionality yet encourage further sales of iPhone and iPad devices.

    working as a standalone system would be just one more thing people have to sync for onboard media, being especially difficult if there’s no onboard internet access. and the issue with onboard internet access is would become another hurdle for a large part of the population who are more price sensitive… it’s one more monthly cost added to their already high cellular data charges.

    i say to make it function like AirPlay mirroring… mirror your cellular connected iPhone/iPad to the dash.

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Mike ElganMike Elgan writes about technology and culture for a wide variety of publications. Follow Mike on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

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