As Siri prepares to make a debut in Mercedes-Benz vehicles, word comes from auto blog Jalopnik that Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) has posted a job opening in China for an automotive engineer with expertise in product integration. While this is just one position and the language makes it somewhat open to interpretation, it does hint that Apple might be looking more closely at integration of its products with automobiles.
Hobbyists have been taking power tools to their auto dashboards to mount iPads since Apple’s tablet was first released, and there are multiple commercial dashboard mounts currently available, but outside of power and stereo hookup, there isn’t much to speak of in the way of integration. These are add-ons as opposed to a device that is fully, safely, and securely integrated into the dash panel.
While the idea of a 10-inch tablet embedded in the middle of a dashboard may sound unlikely, keep in mind that Ford (NYSE:F) is putting 8-inch touchscreen displays in SYNC-equipped vehicles. There are also rumors making the rounds of an 8-inch “iPad Mini” — a form factor that would more closely conform to current auto applications of touchscreen input systems.
The competition’s head start
In-dash infotainment systems are currently dominated by Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), with its Windows Embedded Automotive 7 operating system. This is the OS that powers Ford’s SYNC and MyFord Touch, among others. The thing is, although Ford has been selling SYNC-equipped vehicles since 2007, the technology has been frequently criticized for its complexity and seems far from a hit.
According to Consumer Reports magazine, owner dissatisfaction with the system led to Ford experiencing the biggest drop among automakers in rankings in 2011. A recent upgrade to MyFord Touch was sent out to 300,000 customers but required mailing out a USB thumb drive followed by a one-hour upgrade process.
There is one key factor that hampers any automotive implementation of a touchscreen infotainment system, and Apple’s iPad is certainly not exempt from this: when driving a vehicle, tactile controls work best. Adjusting music volume by turning a knob is easy to accomplish without taking your eyes off the road. The same can’t be said about doing so via touchscreen input. MyFord Touch has implemented voice control features to address this, but success has been mixed.
An edge for Apple?
If Apple is working on integration of the iPad with automobiles in a system similar to SYNC/MyFord Touch, it has to overcome a 10-year Microsoft lead. However, Apple would have a number of advantages:
- Many potential customers would already own an iPad, reducing their cost.
- Functions and features could be developed and delivered as apps, offering a la carte capabilities and lower entry cost for customers. Software upgrades via iTunes would be much simpler.
- The iPad may gain Siri voice recognition, a technology that has been better received than that employed by MyFord Touch. With iPad’s camera, simple gesture-based controls could be a possibility as well.
- An iPad would have access to its owner’s iTunes library for multimedia entertainment purposes (including games, movies, music, e-books and TV shows) and could sync content on demand with iCloud.
- Few would argue that the iPad’s user interface doesn’t have a significant edge over the 10-year-old, CE-based Windows Embedded Automotive 7.
As Cult of Mac points out in its take on the news, by integrating an iPad into their vehicle dashboard, other automakers could “leapfrog Ford by signing a single contract with Apple.”