Considering CarPlay

Late last week, some buzz began building that Apple, alongside automaker partners, would formally reveal the first results of their “iOS in the Car” initiative. Much as rumors had suspected, the end result, now dubbed CarPlay, was demonstrated (or at least shown in a promo video) by initial partners Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo. If you only have time to watch one of them, watch the video of the Ferrari. Though it is an ad-hoc demo, the Ferrari video isn’t painfully overproduced as the Mercedes-Benz video unfortunately is, and isn’t just a concept video as the Volvo is.

The three that were shown are interesting for a variety of reasons (though it is also notable that all three are premium brands). The Ferrari and Volvo videos demonstrate touch-based navigation, and the Mercedes-Benz video uses what (I believe) is their knob-based COMAND system. While CarPlay is navigable using all of them, using the COMAND knob to control the iOS-based experience feels somewhat contrived or forced; like using an old iPod click wheel to navigate a modern iPhone). It just looks painful (to me that’s a M-B issue, not an Apple issue).

Outside of the initial three auto manufacturers, Apple has said that Honda, Hyundai, and Jaguar will also have models in 2014 with CarPlay functionality.

So what exactly is CarPlay?

As I initially looked at CarPlay, it looked like a distinct animal in the Apple ecosystem. But the more I thought about it, the more familiar it looked. Apple pushing their UX out into a new realm, on a device that they don’t own the final interface of… It’s sort of Apple TV, for the car. In fact, pondering what the infrastructure might look like, I kept getting flashbacks to Windows Media Center Extenders, which are remote thin clients that rendered a Windows Media Center UI over a wired or wireless connection.

Apple’s  CarPlay involves a cable-based connection (this seems to be a requirement at this point, I’ll talk about it a bit later) which is used to remotely display several key functions of your compatible iPhone (5s, 5c, 5) on the head unit of your car. That is, the display is that of your auto head unit – but for CarPlay features, your iPhone looks to be what’s actually running the app, and the head unit is simply a dumb terminal rendering it. All data is transmitted through your phone, not some in-car LTE/4G connection, and all of the apps reside, and are updated on your phone, not on the head unit. CarPlay seems to be navigable regardless of the type of touch support your screen has (if it has touch), but also works with buttons, and again, works with knob-based navigation like COMAND.

Apple seems to be requiring two key triggers for CarPlay – 1) a voice command button on the steering wheel, and 2) an entry point into CarPlay itself, generally a button on the head unit (quite easy to see if you watch the Ferrari video, labeled APPLE CARPLAY). Of course these touches are in addition to integrating in the required Apple Lightning cable to tether it all together.

In short, Apple hasn’t done a complete end around of the OEM – the automaker can still have their own UI for their own in-car functions, and then Apple’s distinct CarPlay UI (very familiar to anyone who has used iOS 7) is there when you’re “in CarPlay”, if you will. It seems to me that CarPlay can best be thought of as a remote display for your iPhone, designed to fit the display of your car’s entertainment system. Some have said that “CarPlay systems” are running QNX – perhaps some are. The head unit manufacturer doesn’t really appear to be important here. The main point of all of this is it appears the OEM doesn’t have to do massive work to make it functional, it really looks to primarily be integrating in the remote display functionality and the I/O to the phone. In fact, the UI of the Ferrari as demonstrated doesn’t look to be that different from head units in previous versions of the FF (from what I can see). Also, if you watch the Apple employee towards the end, you can see her press the FF “app”, exiting out to the FF’s own user interface, which is distinctly different from the CarPlay UI. The CarPlay UI, in contrast, is remarkably consistent across the three examples shown so far. While the automakers all have their own unique touches, and controls for the rest of the vehicle, these distinct things that the phone is, frankly, better at, are done through the CarPlay UI.

The built-in iPhone apps supported with CarPlay at this point appear to be:

  • Phone
  • Messages
  • Maps
  • Music
  • Podcasts

The obvious scenarios here are making/receiving phone calls or sending/receiving SMS/iMessages with your phone’s native contact list, and navigation. Quick tasks. Not surfing or searching the Web while you’re driving. Yay! The Maps app has an interesting touch that the Apple employee chose to highlight in the Ferrari video, where maps you’ve been sent in messages are displayed in the list of potential destinations you can choose from. Obviously the CarPlay solution enables Apple’s turn-by-turn maps. If you’re an Apple Maps fan, that’s great news (I’m quite happy with them at this point, personally). If you like using Google Maps or another mapping/messaging or VOIP solution, it looks like you’re out of luck at this point.

In addition to touch, button, or knob-based navigation, Siri is omnipresent in CarPlay, and the system can use voice as your primary input mechanism (triggered through a voice command button on the steering wheel), and is used for reading text messages out loud to you, and responding to them. I use that Siri feature pretty often, myself.

The Music and Podcasts seem like obvious apps to make available, especially now that iTunes Radio is available (although most people either either love or hate the Podcasts app). Just as importantly, Apple is making a handful of third-party applications at this point. Notably:

  • Spotify
  • iHeartRadio
  • Stitcher

Though Apple’s CarPlay site does call out the Beats Music app as well, I noticed it was missing in the Ferrari demo.

Overall, I like Apple’s direction with this. Of course, as I said on Twitter, I’m so vested in the walled garden, I don’t necessarily care that it doesn’t integrate in with handsets from other platforms. That said, I do think most OEMs will be looking at alternatives and implementing one or more of them simultaneously (hopefully implementing all of them that they choose to in a somewhat consistent manner).

Personally, I see quite a few positives to CarPlay:

  • If you have an iPhone, it takes advantage of the device that is already your personal  hub, instead of trying to reinvent it
  • It isolates the things the manufacturer may either be good at or may want to control, and the CarPlay UX. In short, Apple gets their own UX, presented reliably
  • It uses your existing data connection, not yet another one for the car
  • It uses one cable connection. No WiFi or BLE connectivity, and charges while it works
  • I trust Apple to build a lower-distraction (Siri-centric) UI than most automakers
  • It can be updated by Apple, independent of the car head unit
  • Apple can push new apps to it independent of the manufacturer
  • Apple Maps may suck in some people’s perspective (not mine), but it isn’t nearly as bad as some in-dash nav systems (watch some of Brian’s car reviews if you don’t believe me), and doesn’t require shelling out for shiny-media based updates!

Of course, there are some criticisms I or others have already mentioned on Twitter or in reviews:

  • It requires, and uses, iOS 7. Don’t like the iOS 7 UI? You’re probably not going to be a fan
  • It requires a cable connection. Not WiFi or BLE. This is a good/bad thing. I think in time, we’ll see considerate design of integrated phone slots or the like – push the phone in, flat, to dock it. The cables look hacky, but likely enable the security, performance, low latency, and integrated charging that are a better experience overall (also discourages you from picking the phone up while driving)
  • Apple Maps. If you don’t like it, you don’t like it. I do, but lots of people still seem to like deriding it
  • It is yet another Apple walled garden (like Apple TV, or iOS as a whole). Apple controls the UI of CarPlay, how it works, and what apps and content are or are not available. Just like Apple TV is at present. The fact that it is not an open platform or open spec also bothers some.

Overall, I really am excited by what CarPlay represents. I’ve never seen an in-car entertainment system I really loved. While I don’t think I really love any of the three head units I’ve seen so far, I do relish the idea of being able to use the device I like to use already, and having an app experience I’m already familiar with. Now I just need to have it hit some lower-priced vehicles I actually want to buy.

Speaking of that; Apple has said that, beyond the makers above, the following manufacturers have also signed on to work with CarPlay:

BMW Group (which includes Mini and Rolls-Royce), Chevrolet, Ford, Kia, Land Rover, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Opel PSA Peugeot Citroen, Subaru, Suzuki, and Toyota.

As a VW fan, I was disheartened to not see VW on the list. Frankly I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to see a higher-end VW marque opt into it before too long (Porsche, Audi, or Bentley seem like obvious ones to me – but we’ll see). Also absent? Tesla. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see that show up in time as well.

It’s an interesting start. I look forward to seeing how Google, Microsoft, and others continue to evolve their own automotive stories over the coming years – but I think one thing is for sure; the beginning of the phone as the hub of the car (and beyond) is just beginning.