In-car infotainment systems are nothing new. Over the last decade we've seen in-dash systems that control navigation, the stereo, phone calls and other functions trickle down from luxury models to cars for the masses. They're pretty widespread now, but they have one thing in common: They suck. Can Apple do better?
Their answer is yes. They think they can. Their iOS In The Car app, announced at yesterday's WWDC keynote speech, aims to put the redesigned iOS 7 directly in the touch screens of new cars from a dozen automakers. We heard rumors about this back in early May, and now they seem to have been validated.
Actually, I shouldn't say that all in-car infotainment systems suck. These features can be traced back to early control screens on cars like the Buick Riviera and Mazda Eunos Cosmo way back in the late 80s and early 90s. But it could be argued that the infotainment game really ramped up back in 2001 when BMW introduced iDrive on their flagship 7-Series.
Unfortunately, it was famously complicated to operate. The sedan's rotary knob and screen combo controlled more than 700 functions on the car, and it was almost universally panned for its difficulty of use. Still, the idea caught on, and it has spread to just about every other major manufacturer.
Since then, they've gotten better, more streamlined and more accessible while offering more features. Some run on touch screens like Ford, while others run on haptic selection systems like Lexus.
But let's be honest: they're far from great. The most common problems are menus and options that are difficult to navigate, voice control that rarely understands what you say, a general lack of speed and responsiveness, and UIs that are generally confusing and, at worst, distracting to the driver.
Yahoo Autos recently penned a critique on infotainment systems from five automakers: BMW, Mercedes, Lexus, Audi and Mazda. Here's the words they used to describe those systems: "steep learning curve," "unintuitive," "frustrating," "half-assed," "laggy," and "limited."
We don't even need to go into the debacle that has been MyFord Touch. On recent Fords I've driven with that system, I have spent most of my time behind the wheel wanting to put my fist through that touch screen. The menus lagged and froze, it continually forgot my phone after I paired it with Bluetooth, and it skipped songs when I didn't tell it to. In general, it rarely seemed inclined to do what I told it to, which made for hours of driving frustration.
Are these problems endemic to all current infotainment systems? No, but by and large, they still aren't nearly as user-friendly as they should be.
Who can honestly say that they have used a car infotainment system that is as easy and fast to operate as a modern PC, tablet or smartphone?
And there's another problem that infotainment systems face: Why use an automaker's clunky system for playing music or loading maps when it's just easier to use your phone instead?
Apple's answer is to put the phone into the infotainment system. Specifically, the iPhone's operating system, the upcoming iOS 7. During the keynote, Apple Senior Vice President Eddy Cue promised a system that will play your music, display maps and your text messages, and even read them to you eyes-free with Siri, which promises to understand your voice better than ever to make phone calls.
Most importantly, it replaces whatever infotainment operating system is built into the car with iOS. Say what you want about Apple's products, but they are generally intuitive and easy to use. Nearly any child or computer illiterate person can pick up an iPad and figure things out fairly quickly — that has always been one of the manufacturer's greatest strengths.
That's what they say they can bring to your car starting in 2014. Siri Eyes Free was announced last year, but this is different because it puts the entire iOS in your dash.
So can Apple make an infotainment system that doesn't suck? Possibly. If this catches on, I could see similar apps that put smartphone OSes (including Android, hopefully) directly into the touch screen instead of tricky automaker-developed systems.
What Apple needs to do is keep the emphasis on simplicity, speed and accuracy of voice commands. No one wants to cycle through endless, hanging menus when they're trying to keep their eyes on the road.
Infotainment systems clearly aren't going anywhere on new cars, but they still have a long way to go. Learning from smartphones — or even putting the phones directly in the cars — may be a big step towards ease of use. I know I'd rather use iOS in the car over MyFord Touch.