Apple is announcing something this Wednesday, and everybody expects that announcement to involve new iPods, a new strategy for iTunes, and possible a new direction for Apple TV.
A FaceTime-capable iPod touch would be nice. And 99-cent TV shows would probably make Apple a lot of money.
Apple and Google are fighting it out over control of the TV experience, but I don’t sense a lot of desire on the part of consumers to change their habits. It’s an uphill battle.
And while Apple sinks major resources into solving a TV problem that doesn’t exist, the in-dash car entertainment system desperately needs Apple’s help.
Here’s what’s going on.
Have you talked to a Ford lately?
The right foundation for an in-dash entertainment system is a cell phone operating system. Guess which cell phone platform dominates automobiles? Microsoft’s Windows Mobile, which evolved from the venerable Windows CE operating system.
Microsoft Auto is Microsoft’s car dashboard operating system. It’s a variant of embedded CE and the basis for Ford Sync, the entertainment and navigation system in 12 Ford vehicles.
Ford Sync enables voice control of your MP3 player and various dashboard functions. It also offers voice control of your cell phone, with a push-to-talk feature that you activate via a button on the steering wheel and a feature called AppLink that gives you voice control of some cell phone apps. Sync’s phone integration feature will read text messages to you. And Ford offers subscriptions to a service that gives you traffic reports and turn-by-turn directions, and an emergency service called 911 Assist.
Earlier this year, Ford announced MyFord Touch, which features an 8-inch touchscreen interface for controlling Sync features. It also gives you an in-dash Web browser (which only works while the car is parked).
GM has OnStar, which is heavily focused on emergency services and navigation, rather than entertainment. There are several proprietary—and very pricey, systems for high-end luxury cars. But for the most part, Ford Sync is the only real effort out there to fully integrate cell phone features, apps, entertainment and the Internet into a car dashboard in an affordable way.
Why Apple should be driving in-car entertainment
The business purpose for Ford Sync and MyFord Touch are to sell more cars. If you’re torn between a Ford Mustang and a Dodge Viper, Sync might motivate you to choose Ford. The automaker deserves credit for pushing the category much further than its competitors have, and for working hard to keep the costs relatively low. Ford Sync is cool, but only in the context of zero competition. The reality is that Ford Sync is a long, long way from being an ideal solution.
Let’s think for a moment about what people really want to do in their cars, besides get somewhere.
First, people want to listen to music and other audio content. Cars have had radios since the 1930s. Car radios served us well. But when given a choice outside cars, people choose music downloads or music services like Pandora over regular radio. Talk radio is hit or miss and can’t hold a candle to the wonderful world of podcasting. Audio books are ideal for long road trips or boring commutes.
Second, people want navigation. In the early years, GPS navigation and turn-by-turn directions came in the form of clunky, expensive dedicated units mounted on car dashboards. But now, more and more people are using Google Maps on their cell phones. It’s dangerous to do that with an iPhone, because without spoken turn-by-turn directions, users are forced to read microscopic printed directions.
Third, parents like to pacify their kids with video programming. It costs a fortune, but many parents buy cars with video players built in.
And fourth, people have a wide variety of random needs. They need to find gas stations, bathrooms and restaurants. They need to check their calendars. In short, they need apps.
Outside of our cars, most of our audio content, navigational aids, mobile video content and apps come to us through Apple iTunes. We’ve invested small fortunes in our music collections, apps and other content. What we really need is to bring iTunes into our cars. Especially when iTunes is available as a cloud service.
Ford has realized that touchscreens are a more appealing way to control an in-dash system, which is why it has invested so much effort in MyFord Touch. Unfortunately, MyFord Touch looks like it was designed by a U.S. car company. It’s complex, clunky and ugly, and its interface elements are random. It’s a touchscreen from the past, without support for multitouch, physics or gestures. Imagine how obsolete it will look in five years, when you’re still making payments on that Mustang.
Worse, instead of replacing the other controls with a new touchscreen, Ford is merely adding controls. You can use hundreds of voice commands. There are buttons all over the dash and steering wheel. From a user interface perspective, Ford Sync with MyFord Touch is a disaster.
To me, the ultimate in-dash system would be an iPad dock that’s integrated into the car’s sound system.
A dashboard iPad would provide the following advantages over Ford Sync:
- A vastly superior touchscreen interface.
- The best platform for content.
- The leading mobile app platform, which software companies could leverage to create car-specific applications of every description.
- An incredible screen for maps and navigation.
- Better upgradability.
Rather than having every car company develop its own proprietary system for entertainment, navigation and apps, shouldn’t we have a platform that works across car brands?
Outside the car industry, a thousand companies or more have been slugging it out for years to optimize the mobile entertainment and navigation experience—from content aggregation to user interface design to audio and video electronics. Rather than Ford coming along and being the 1,001st company to come up with its own stab in the dark—one based on the smartphone industry’s Biggest Loser, Windows Mobile—shouldn’t we instead take the winner of this global contest and build it into our cars?
Apple has the best audio content, the best video content, the biggest selection of quality mobile apps and the best touchscreen user interface. We don’t need to re-invent the wheel with mobile entertainment. Just build an iPad dock into the dashboard.
[Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture.]