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Why we’re less than impressed with Apple’s “me-too” CarPlay system

With the introduction of CarPlay this week at the Geneva Motor Show, Apple's has unveiled its initial game plan for moving into automotive infotainment. The feature, formerly known as iOS in the Car and announced at the 2013 WWDC last June, is both very Apple-like and very un-Apple-like in its approach. And by not bringing anything particularly new and ground-breaking to the somewhat chaotic auto infotainment space, CarPlay is also underwhelming.

First, the details: CarPlay is an iPhone-specific feature that automakers can incorporate to allow drivers to make calls, access messages, use Maps for navigation, and listen to music on a compatible connected Apple device. In a press release, Apple said drivers will do this "with just a word or a touch," meaning that access to CarPlay is via a vehicle's in-dash touchscreen, or using Siri through a car's existing voice recognition button.

CarPlay debuted at the Geneva Motor Show in vehicles from Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo. (I shot a demo video in Volvo's Estate concept, which you can see above). Apple also said CarPlay will "be available in select cars shipping in 2014" from BMW, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Jaguar Land Rover, Kia, Mitsubishi, Nissan, PSA Peugeot Citroën, Subaru, Suzuki, and Toyota. CarPlay will only work with the iPhone 5S, iPhone 5C and iPhone 5, or devices that use the latest Lightning connector. The feature will be available as an update to iOS 7, and pricing is not yet available.

CarPlay is Apple-like in that it's an extension of the company's walled garden approach into the dashboard. This brings familiarity to iPhone owners since the UI of their device is replicated on a car's in-dash screen, and comfort to automakers seeking an intuitive interface – and less customer complaints.

Andrew Poliack, director of automotive business development at QNX Software Systems, which provides the behind-the-dash processing for CarPlay, noted that since the feature works with a car's infotainment system in "display mode," the response time will be faster than with similar existing iPhone-integration schemes like, say, BMW's ConnectedDrive, as well as other such systems that are device agnostic.

Poliack also pointed out that CarPlay will be more easily updateable than embedded infotainment systems as new software and apps become available, since these will come through the device. At launch, CarPlay will only support "select third-party audio apps including Spotify and iHeartRadio," although Apple promised that more apps are on the way.

Less impressive than it appears

But the company hasn't indicated whether it will open up CarPlay to third-party developers the way Ford and General Motors have with their app platforms in order to spur innovation. This is very un-Apple-like since the company practically invented the app concept and provided a platform for developers, although the car is a very different and highly regulated environment.

What's more un-Apple-like is that the company's traditional approach with an incipient product category like connected car (think music players and smartphones) has been to unleash class-leading innovation and cutting-edge design not previously available from others in the space. The only thing new about CarPlay is that it integrates Maps navigation with your emails, messages, and contacts to provide what Apple calls personalised routing and traffic info. Everything else – phone connectivity, messaging, navigation, and music – is already available in various forms in a variety of vehicles. And while some of these are good and some are not so good, and they could all use improvement and more interoperability among different devices, you don't have to own an iPhone to use them.

No doubt CarPlay will appeal to iPhone owners and to automakers desperately seeking a smartphone integration solution that new car buyers won't curse, although the feature is useless to drivers using Android or other devices. But it also represents a further fracturing in car infotainment vis-à-vis portable device integration. With its Open Automotive Alliance, Google is also going its own way and, like Apple, making a play for the potentially lucrative connected car market. Meanwhile, the Car Connectivity Consortium with its MirrorLink standard and others like Livio Connect (which was recently acquired by Ford) are trying to establish a device agnostic approach to automotive-based smartphone integration.

We shouldn't expect Apple to be concerned with integrating devices it didn't create into the dashboard, or to take a more open approach to automotive infotainment. But even within its walled garden, we've come to expect Apple to think differently when it enters a new product category. And it's very un-Apple-like to come to market with a me-too product.

For more on CarPlay, see our closer look at how Apple's CarPlay works, and its potential impact on in-car Android.