The automotive and tech worlds are abuzz today with news about Apple’s entrance into the connected car at the Geneva Auto Show, and rightly so. This deal will be huge for putting more apps and into the dashboard and connecting millions of iPhone owners to their cars, but it also needs to be put in a little perspective.
This is a first step for Apple(s aapl) into automotive realm that could take on much more significance later on. With CarPlay, we’re not going to see a new generation of iCars to match our iPads, iPods and iPhones. We’re not going to see automakers abandon their infotainment platforms and hand the controls over to Apple. And Apple hasn’t struck any kind of coup de grace against Google(s goog), Microsoft(s msft), BlackBerry-QNX(s bbry) or Nokia(s nok) in the battle over the connected car. In fact it won’t be long before we see Google and Apple sharing space in the dashboard.
With CarPlay, Apple has built what amounts to a framework that runs on automakers’ existing infotainment system. Of CarPlay’s 11 automaker partners, most of them have connected infotainment platforms of their own, and those systems aren’t going anywhere. CarPlay will ride on top of them, acting as a seamless conduit from your iPhone-stored content and Apple’s core services into the car’s dashboard monitor and user interface.
The new name CarPlay (a riff on AirPlay) says it all. It’s a much a better descriptor than Apple’s former working name “iOS in the Car”.
The connected car gradually opens up
The way the market is shaping up we’re going to see a lot more of these kinds of deals. You’ll notice that three of CarPlay’s automotive partners — GM(s gm), Honda(s hmc) and Hyundai — are also members of Google’s Open Automotive Alliance, which aims to embed Android into vehicles.
All three of those automakers also happen to members of the Connected Car Consortium, which is developing another framework called MirrorLink, which can emulate Android, Symbian, BlackBerry and eventually Windows Phone user interface’s in the dashboard’s center console. Many of these same automakers are looking to technologies like Harman’s Aha Radio to aggregate broad swathes of apps in the infotainment system, from Facebook(s fb) updates to audiobooks.
So in addition to hosting its own apps and own connectivity through MyLink and OnStar, your future Chevy could also link to your iPhone’s core features, as well as a Samsung Galaxy’s or Nokia Lumia’s. In fact, we’ll likely see a huge degree of customization to different devices in the dash. At Mobile World Congress last week, HTC showed off an automotive skin that recreates its Sense Android interface in MirrorLink-powered Volkswagens.
These services are meant to augment their connected car strategies, not replace them, according to explanations from several automakers I talked to. I get the impression that the auto industry is grudgingly coming to terms with the fact that there are a lot of apps from internet radio to location-sharing that customers simply want to see replicated on the dashboard and car speakers. They also realize that other players in the mobile industry are more qualified to deliver that software in volume than they are.
But the automakers want to reserve stuff that makes the connected car experience unique for themselves. They want to build the apps that can reach beyond the center console and into the car’s control access networks, its increasing array of sensors and even into the engine’s CPU. The telematics app that immediately alerts you when the airbag in your son’s car has been deployed, or the streaming music service that selects playlists based on the “mood” of your driving patterns – those will come from your automaker’s developer program, not Apple’s.
Who’s in control?
There’s a big risk for the automakers here: that these application frameworks go from merely supplementing their connected car platforms to dominating them. iOS already has one of the largest developer communities in the world, and making an app CarPlay friendly could be as simple as tapping into an additional set of APIs (and likely a much more rigorous certification process).
At launch the CarPlay interface will let you access the iHeartRadio, Spotify, Beats Music and Stitcher apps on your iPhone, and Apple is promising many more apps to come. The thing is many automakers already offer these same streaming services through their own infotainment systems. If you’re a consumer, why use GM’s version of iHeartRadio if the app on CarPlay is already downloaded and configured on your iPhone? If you’re a developer, why go through the bother of signing up for 11 different automaker developer programs if can just sign up with Apple’s?
That won’t be the only source of conflict. Apple and Google can bring apps into the dashboard that the automakers have so far tried to keep out of the car. Navigation is the prime example. Say what you like about Apple Maps, but it’s a free turn-by-turn directions app that will soon be available in cars where paid navigation services are now the only option. And though Google and MirrorLink have made no official announcement, one of the apps I saw in that Volkswagen demo at Mobile World Congress was Google Maps with Navigation.
Ultimately CarPlay is going to be great for consumers and developers, though I’m not so sure about the automakers. After years of trying to build up interest in their connected infotainment systems, automakers have managed to produce only a few dozen apps. Apple could rectify that situation quickly.
Apple isn’t taking control of the connected car by any means; CarPlay will be an option among many. But if the automakers don’t start producing compelling apps of their own, that little bit dashboard territory they just ceded to Apple could grow into quite the automotive empire.