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

By Chris Maxcer
Mar 7, 2014 12:26 PM PT

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

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

It's not so much a big deal because there is a huge pool of iPhone users who drive cars. No, CarPlay is a big deal because Apple is letting auto manufacturers deliver the look and feel of an Apple product.

Instead of Apple obsessing over every detail of a car's built-in display, the carmakers decide on the size, angles and controls. Instead of Apple designers obsessing over how a button or knob feels to a user, 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 video demonstrations, only two actually look good and feel like they belong together. The best, of course, is the implementation that Apple has teasingly highlighted on its own CarPlay site. Apple told me that the dash in the illustrative photos comes from a real 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 their suddenly garish colors and cartoony icons make the whole thing look tacky. Of course, maybe when you're sitting in a Ferrari you're more interested in feeling the seat under your butt as you dive into corners and accelerate into the night.

Then there's Mercedes-Benz. The luxury automaker somehow saw fit to take 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 have a 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 secret specifications and licensing deals with the automakers. I expect that Apple has minimum specs for resolution of displays, as well as sizes for the output on each car's display. It may even dictate some sort of control type on steering wheels -- but ultimately, what we've got here is that the fit and finish, combined with exact controls mechanisms, are delivered by the automobile industry.

If you take into consideration that cars tend to be on the road much longer than any given model of an iPhone, Apple is going to have aging interfaces to its brand. Heck, the Mercedes-Benz implementation already looks dated.

On the other hand, by giving up total control, Apple is broadening its reach and stifling competition at the same time. Plus, it's a win for automakers. A car manufacturer typically can't compete with the highly tuned world of smartphone and tablet innovation, but CarPlay allows them let their customers use their iPhones to drive the in-car communication, navigation and music experience -- in a familiar way that's easily updated and modernized by Apple.

Better yet, Apple isn't stealing all control from the manufacturer's own built-in systems. In fact, the Ferrari demonstration included a Ferrari icon featuring the company's iconic stallion. Because Apple isn'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 home entertainment systems and, in particular, HD television sets built by anyone but Apple. So Apple's overall look and feel has already been loosened 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 navigation is through Apple products -- and there is no way to jump in or out of any other TV service when you're using your Apple TV. There is no icon that I can select, for instance, that will send me back to my cable television service. If I want live TV, I have to pick up a different 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 of thinking and willingness to extend its services in new ways.

Does this signal a kindler, gentler Apple? Or simply one with a more pragmatic world view? If Apple is loosening its claws of control with CarPlay, might it also loosen 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 result in a far better consumer experience? I hope so.

Either way, the CarPlay solution is elegant in its straightforward simplicity -- your iPhone is the new brains of your in-dash display and hands-free interaction. Plug it in, go, and best yet: Instead of aging out of relevance as you drive your car for years, you'll get fresh 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 in Cupertino.

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 You can also connect with him on Google+.

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