In amongst all the techno hoopla of the World Wide Developers’ Conference (WWDC), Apple (quite apart from announcing a raft of new soft and hardware, guaranteed to have the Californian brand’s fanboys drooling at the wallet) revealed that its is in talks with several car makers to provide dedicated in-car connectivity.
The rumour mill is already positing that brands such as Jaguar-Land Rover, BMW, Audi, Mercedes, Toyota, Chrysler and GM are talking to Apple’s techies in Cupertino about having Apple’s Siri voice-recognition system integrated in to their cars at the factory. Already available on the iPhone, and shortly on the iPad, Siri uses voice recognition to allow you to issue simple, intuitive commands that don’t rely on needing to speak in a specific way – it recognises plain English, something that most in-car voice recognition systems struggle with. Crucially for in-car use, it allows for at least partially hands-free operation of your phone or music player.
Such a move would, obviously, allow for quick and easy integration of Apple’s iPhone and iPod devices into the car’s infotainment systems, but there are some more wide-ranging implications. Apple also revealed at the WWDC that it’s ending it mobile devices’ reliance on Google’s map software, and instead pursuing its own maps, complete with turn-by-turn navigation and traffic alerts. Such a move would, at a stroke, impact on the market for both after-market sat-nav systems (such as TomTom and Garmin) and the car makers’ own built-in systems, many of which are looking dramatically over-priced when you can already buy a €99 after-market system on any high street. Indeed, in some ways, it’s a tacit admission that the car company’s own in-house electronics lag in development terms behind Apple.
John Madden, a Dublin-based contributor to Wired magazine’s GeekDad blog, told us that “I think car makers have been admitting it for a long time! Car makers offering branded electronics – Alpine and Bose stereos, TomTom sat navs etc. – isn’t really anything new. If I remember right, I think the iPod integration in BMWs is even Apple’s own tech. The interesting thing to me is that Apple’s relationship with other companies is usually contingent on Apple being the dominant partner. I wonder who approached whom, and whether or not this is a first step by Apple towards a wider, exclusively Apple in car system.”
However, with Apple now openly launching specific in-car tech, the stage is set for yet another face-off between Apple and the globe’s other software and computing giant; Microsoft. Microsoft already supplies in-car telematics systems to the likes of Ford, Hyundai-Kia and Fiat (which, intriguingly, owns one of the firms on the Apple list; Chrysler) and indeed has been doing so for a long time now, which at least gives it a temporary advantage of experience over its rival. But does this mean that car buyers are going to have to, in future, tailor their purchases according to the software they’re most used to? Graham Barlow, Editor in Chief of Mac Format magazine told us that “I think the answer is ‘yes’. Although I doubt many people would change their car choice based on whether it worked ‘out of the box’ with their mobile phone. Plus, there will always be third parties who make kits that fill in the missing gaps in connectivity.”
While that’s undoubtedly true, it does seem like a worry for future tech-savvy drivers that they have to make a choice at all. We’ve become used, over the past decade, to software and hardware types that are universal, that operate across all systems. CD, DVD, Mp3, PDF; it doesn’t matter who makes your machine, these will work in it. So surely it would be better for motorists, and simpler (and therefore less expensive) for car makers, if the makers of media players, phones and sat-navs could just agree on a common standard, ensuring that any one of the above will work in any car, preferably with a minimum of fiddling and consulting the owners’ manual?
“Yes it would definitely be better,” says Graham Barlow, “but that’s rarely the way things work in the real world. Competing standards are a way of life for product evolution – there’s a long history of it, from VHS vs Betamax to all the various versions of recordable DVD standards. BluRay vs HD-DVD was another competing standards battle, and as we all know BluRay won that one.”
“I don’t think it’ll be quite as extreme as I have an iPhone, so I have to buy a Land Rover,” says John Madden, “but it might be the other way around, e.g. You have a Land Rover, so if you want to plug in an Android phone be prepared for compatibility issues. Obviously it would be better for consumers in terms of choice if you can plug anything into anything, but to be perfectly honest I’m sort of an Apple sympathiser on this one – if you control both aspects of something, usually hardware and software, but in this case it’s two pieces of hardware, you can be sure every user is getting the intended experience.”
Just after Apple mogul Steve Jobs’ untimely death earlier this year, Apple board member Steve Drexler revealed that it had been Jobs’ passion to eventually build an iCar – a vehicle that would embody Apple’s unique style and user interface. Jobs, a car enthusiast who owned a string of AMG Mercedes models, didn’t live long enough to fulfill that ambition, but what is this new Apple venture? A first step on the road to realising that dream? Or a consolation prize?