OPINION

Apple’s CarPlay Gambit: Retract One Claw to Hook With Another

Apple’s CarPlay initiative is a profoundly new tactic for Apple.Compared to its behavior in recent years, when Apple has focused intense control overevery element of its product environment — frompackaging, hardware and operating systems to the submission process for its App Stores — Apple’s stance in its CarPlay initiative is a very big deal.

It’s not so much a big deal because there is a huge poolof iPhone users who drive cars. No, CarPlay is a big deal becauseApple is letting auto manufacturers deliver the look and feelof an Apple product.

Instead of Apple obsessing over every detail of acar’s built-in display, the carmakers decide on the size, angles andcontrols. Instead of Apple designers obsessing over how a button or knob feels to auser, Ferrari or Ford teams get to do that.

The results, so far, are 50-50 at best.

Of the four implementations I’ve seen in photos and videodemonstrations, only two actually look good and feel like theybelong together. The best, of course, is the implementation that Applehas teasingly highlighted on its own CarPlay site.Apple told me that the dash in the illustrative photos comes from areal car but declined to identify the make and model (it looks an awful lot like the Honda version, though, pictured below). It’s fantastic, of course — built like it belongs.

Carplay Honda Homescreen

Volvo’s implementation looks great, too.

On the other hand, Ferrari? Apple’s big iOS 7 icons are displayed right under the carbon fiber dash, and theirsuddenly garish colors and cartoony icons make the whole thing looktacky. Of course, maybe when you’re sitting in a Ferrari you’re moreinterested in feeling the seat under your butt as you dive intocorners and accelerate into the night.

Then there’s Mercedes-Benz. The luxury automaker somehow saw fit totake a tablet and glom it onto the dash. Talk about ruining the mood — but maybe it’s just me and my delicate design sensibilities. Still, I havea hard time believing such a travesty wouldn’t make Apple’s Jony Ive crawl under a table and rock himself back and forth to soothe the sudden pain.

For the Greater Good?

No doubt about it, Apple has retained some sort of secretspecifications and licensing deals with the automakers. I expect thatApple has minimum specs for resolution of displays, as well as sizesfor the output on each car’s display. It may even dictate some sort ofcontrol type on steering wheels — but ultimately, what we’ve got hereis that the fit and finish, combined with exact controls mechanisms,are delivered by the automobile industry.

If you take intoconsideration that cars tend to be on the road much longer than anygiven model of an iPhone, Apple is going to have aging interfaces toits brand. Heck, the Mercedes-Benz implementation already looksdated.

On the other hand, by giving up total control, Apple is broadening itsreach and stifling competition at the same time. Plus, it’s a win forautomakers. A car manufacturer typically can’t compete withthe highly tuned world of smartphone and tablet innovation, but CarPlayallows them let their customers use their iPhones to drive the in-carcommunication, navigation and music experience — in a familiar waythat’s easily updated and modernized by Apple.

Better yet, Apple isn’t stealing all control from the manufacturer’sown built-in systems. In fact, the Ferrari demonstration included aFerrari icon featuring the company’s iconic stallion. Because Appleisn’t taking over the whole dash, CarPlay becomes a cool new “choice”for consumers — and one that manufacturers can safely offer.

In effect, CarPlay lets the iPhone be the constantly updated brains,while in-dash systems serve as a display.

Apple TV and a Kindler, Gentler Apple?

The Apple TV set-top puck, of course, has to play nice with homeentertainment systems and, in particular, HD television sets built byanyone but Apple. So Apple’s overall look and feel has already beenloosened by the way an Apple TV uses any HDTV as a display.

What’s different, though, is that once in the Apple TV world, your navigationis through Apple products — and there is no way to jump in or outof any other TV service when you’re using your Apple TV. There is noicon that I can select, for instance, that will send me back to mycable television service. If I want live TV, I have to pick up adifferent remote and select a new input source for the TV’s display.

So, when I see CarPlay, I’m less wowed by easy driver access to Maps,music, Siri and phone calls — and more wowed by Apple’s line ofthinking and willingness to extend its services in new ways.

Does this signal a kindler, gentler Apple? Or simply one with a more pragmatic worldview? If Apple is loosening its claws of control with CarPlay, might it alsoloosen its grip when it comes to a new Apple TV path to the living room?If Apple TV actually played nice with broadcast television –instead of seeking to oust old-school TV delivery — would this resultin a far better consumer experience? I hope so.

Either way, the CarPlay solution is elegant in its straightforwardsimplicity — your iPhone is the new brains of your in-dash displayand hands-free interaction. Plug it in, go, and best yet: Instead ofaging out of relevance as you drive your car for years, you’ll getfresh maps and apps along the way.

As for the dash design? If it ages,you likely won’t blame Apple. It’s a damn fine win for the company inCupertino.

Chris Maxcer

TechNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at WickedCoolBite.com. You can also connect with him on Google+.

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