A decade ago, it was a luxury to plug an iPod into a car's auxiliary jack. Fast-forward 10 years and Apple's (AAPL 1.50%) integration into cars has evolved, with its CarPlay system bringing key iPhone features into vehicle dashboards.
We've been down this road before
Apple's CarPlay functionality allows drivers to tap into Siri, Maps, iTunes, make phones calls, and access texts using a vehicle's voice command buttons and other built-in vehicle controls. If you think you've heard of Apple bringing its mobile OS into cars before, you have.
Last year, Apple introduced its "iOS in the Car" feature at its Worldwide Developers Conference. CarPlay is essentially just a rebranding of that feature and a more official rollout of the system.
CarPlay works by tethering an iPhone 5, 5c, or 5s to a vehicle using the Lightning connector. Drivers can then use voice command buttons to access Siri, bring up Apple Maps directions, make phone calls, and even play iTunes Radio stations. Apple will also allow some third-party app integration like iHeartRatio and Spotify.
It sounds like a cool feature, but what's the point?
Battling for the driver's seat
Apple has said in the past that about 95% of new cars have some sort of integration with iOS devices. But CarPlay will undoubtedly bring the most iPhone features into a car's infotainment system to date.
Apple is beefing up its competitiveness in the auto space at the same time Google (GOOGL 0.42%) has started the Open Automotive Alliance to bring the Android platform into vehicle infotainment systems.
Here's what the OAA says on its site about Android integration:
We're working with our partners to enable better integration between cars and Android devices in order to create a safer, car optimized experience. We're also developing new Android platform features that will enable the car itself to become a connected Android device.
Google's alliance includes carmakers like General Motors, Honda, and Hyundai -- three companies Apple is working with for its own CarPlay. Automakers don't have any allegiance to either tech company right now and they're trying to figure out which system works best for them.
But the huge difference between the Open Automotive Alliance and CarPlay is that Google's plan is to embed Android into the car's infotainment system. Meanwhile, CarPlay requires an iOS device to be physically in the car to access the features.
And the winner is...
Google absolutely dominated the smartphone OS world in just a few years by giving Android away to smartphone makers for free. There's no reason it can't repeat the same strategy for car infotainment systems. The automotive industry wants to bring evergreen technology into their vehicles to ensure a car that just rolled off the assembly line isn't technologically obsolete in a few years. Incorporating Android, with its constant updates, would be the easiest way to do this.
In Apple's defense, the company has a certain amount of prestige that may make it a favorite among luxury brands. This is already evident as Ferrari, Volvo, and Mercedes-Benz are the first carmakers to launch CarPlay. But Apple is working with about 16 automotive brands across all price points, and carmakers will ultimately decide on a platform that can be accessed by the most users.
CarPlay is a sleek way of bringing the best of the iPhone into cars, but at the end of the day it isn't a complete operating system -- and that's to Google's advantage.