Apple's next revolution should be in your car

Car stereos and navigation systems are a mess, but Apple could make it all just work

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Which got me to thinking: Why can't cars use my smartphone's music player, nav system, and even communications apps? Each of us who has a smartphone typically uses it as a constant personal assistant, so why should we switch to a different, often inferior one when we get in a car? Why can't the car mirror or subsume what our smartphone does? It's a perfect place for consumerization's "choose your own technology environment" aspect to take root.

They should. But I suspect only Apple would get it right, though that would mean not "choose your own" but "everyone use the best consumer tech (Apple's)," in a replay of the iPad phenomenon.

A proof of concept: The App Radio 2
To get an inkling of what I'm talking about, head down to your nearest Best Buy -- as long as they're in business -- or local car stereo shop, and test out the Pioneer App Radio 2 (the original App Radio model is unusable, so be sure you're looking at the 2). You plug your iPhone or Android smartphone into it via a USB cable, and it lets you manage your music playback in a way similar to how those devices do it -- all via a touchscreen. You also can access your phone via a Bluetooth headset or an in-car mic and speaker, as is common in most car stereos these days.

You can also run some apps, such as the MotionX Drive navigation app and the Pandora Radio streaming-music app, from your smartphone. There are even apps for reading email and text messages, as well as dictating them, and for checking your calendar -- this last set makes me nervous, but I know a lot of folks who listen to and dictate their email as they drive, so this may just be the way of the world. I guess it's good that self-driving cars are on the horizon!

Basically, you get a subset of your smartphone's apps that are driving-safe (according to Pioneer) displayed on the App Radio 2's touchscreen, as well as some embedded apps in the device such as for listening to the radio. It's almost as if someone put an iPod Touch into the car stereo.

That put the gears in motion. The App Radio 2 is still kludgy, and the fact it forces me to use a specific navigation app bugs me. I already have an navigation app I paid for and like, and I should be able to use it wherever I am. And I do, by placing the iPhone in a cup holder and using Bluetooth to hear it. Why even have a car stereo or in-car nav system in that case? The car should adapt to me, not force me to change states for these functions.

Why others won't step forward to solve this problem
Ideally, stereo makers would do a better version of the App Radio 2, allowing any driving-safe app to be used from an iOS or Android device. (The other mobile platforms have too few users and too few apps to worry about.) For people without these devices, such car stereos would offer basic radio features, Bluetooth phone and music streaming, and perhaps an optional nav service -- increasingly the case today. In other words, the car adapts to you unless you have nothing to adapt to.

I seriously doubt the car makers will drive this, as they're afraid of liability from distracted driving. Never mind that the whole car environment is more distracting when you tack on a separate nav system or do a hack work-around like putting your smartphone in your cup holder (as I do). They figure they're responsible only for what they provide, not for how drivers work around it.

Some car stereo makers are making halting steps in this regard, with the App Radio 2 being the best -- and, frankly, only -- meaningful example. VC has made some strides in better Bluetooth integration, but it hasn't crossed the app threshold yet. Most of the rest are simply clueless about user interface and unconcerned about meaningful integration with mobile devices.

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