Apple on Board?

With both the iPhone and Apple TV running versions of OS X, rumors of an in-car navigation and infotainment system are not inconceivable

I've seen my share of Apple rumors—some real whoppers even—come and go. One of the craziest, which graced the Drudge Report nearly a decade ago, had Disney (DIS) on the cusp of acquiring Apple (AAPL). Even in the wild environment of the technology boom, there was no concrete reason to believe that report, all the more humorous now that Steve Jobs is Disney's largest shareholder.

Despite the fabulous inventiveness of the Apple gossip mill, I couldn't help but put some serious thought behind a recent rumor—again, probably a tall tale but not completely implausible or illogical. German magazine Focus reported on June 17 that Apple is working with Mercedes (DCX) to develop an in-car navigation and infotainment system for the 2009 model year.

A Feasible Combination

Let me preface this by stating that I don't think the story is true. But the idea intrigued me, as such a development would be huge for both Apple and the auto industry in general. First off, Apple's latest noncomputer products, Apple TV and the iPhone, include stripped-down versions of the Mac OS X operating system, itself based on the exceedingly stable and flexible Unix platform. Apple says iPhone's version of Mac OS X is the same as the Mac's. This suggests that the OS could be embedded into any device, from a TV to a refrigerator, alarm clock, or new class of consumer electronics we've yet to imagine.

Second, let's remember the headline technology on the iPhone: a multi-touch screen, which enables a user to press more than one spot at the same time to, for example, enlarge a photo (see, 4/16/07, "The iPhone's German Accent," and 3/15/07, "Apple's Magic Touch Screen"). If this kind of screen can be built into a mobile phone, I can't think of any reason why it couldn't also be built into the dashboard of a car. That would be a handy feature compared with the confusing array of buttons that usually clutter dashboards and steering columns or even the one-touch screens on the in-dash systems being offered in a growing number of cars.

Third, Apple already has relationships with many car companies. BMW was the first to add an iPod connector to play music through the car stereo system using a simple set of controls on the back of the steering wheel. Now 70% of the new car models available in the U.S. boast iPod integration as a dealer-installed option.

An Improvement over Current Systems

Meanwhile, automakers all seem to suffer the same problem: The interfaces on their in-dash system controls and navigation systems are horrible. This happens to be an issue I've grown too familiar with this year as I've shopped for a new car, test-driving lots of models and playing with their in-dash screens. I had gotten used to the controls embedded in the steering wheel of my 2004 Jeep Cherokee but never really liked them, and I dislike the interface on my 2007 Jeep Commander even more. I test-drove a BMW X5, a Lexus RX 350 (TM), a Hummer H3 (GM), and a Land Rover LR2 (F), and found none of their in-dash controls intuitive. I also suspect there are a lot of features on these systems that never get used because they're difficult to find, let alone operate.

So what would make them easier? An iPhone-like touch screen for starters. Slam-dunk easy integration with other devices would be another.

If an iPhone, or any other phone for that matter, already stores your list of contacts, including their physical addresses, then you might like to access that same information through your car's navigation system, using either a cable or Bluetooth wireless technology. Or you may be on the road in an unfamiliar area when someone e-mails you an address where you need to be shortly. A quick sync with the in-car system from the phone would make the process of getting there easy. These are such obvious features I don't understand why automakers haven't done this already. Instead, you're saddled with the cumbersome task of keying in each character of an address on the in-dash touchscreen.

Naturally, linking the in-car system with the iPhone or an iPod would make a great deal of sense for entertainment as well. Millions already play music through their car stereos from the iPod, and will likely do the same with the iPhone. Integrating video would seem an easy step forward. After all, many cars already have DVD players with LCD screens in the back. Why not just ditch the physical media and play videos stored on the iPod?

These are all natural extensions of Apple's operating system and user-friendly approach that one might reasonably envision. So maybe that German rumor teaming Apple and Mercedes on some future in-car system wasn't true. But at least it wasn't crazy.

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