Dude, where's my Apple iCar?

While Apple is wasting its time on TV, Microsoft drives away with the automobile market

Apple is announcing something next week, and everybody expects that announcement to involve new iPods, a new strategy for iTunes and possible a new direction for Apple TV.

A FaceTime-capable iPod Touch would be nice. And 99-cent TV shows would probably make Apple a lot of money.

Apple and Google are fighting it out over control of the TV experience, but I don't sense a lot of desire on the part of consumers to change their habits. It's an uphill battle.

And while Apple sinks major resources into solving a TV problem that doesn't exist, the in-dash car entertainment system desperately needs Apple's help.

Here's what's going on.

Have you talked to a Ford lately?

The right foundation for an in-dash entertainment system is a cell phone operating system. Guess which cell phone platform dominates automobiles? Microsoft's Windows Mobile, which evolved from the venerable Windows CE operating system.

Microsoft Auto is Microsoft's car dashboard operating system. It's a variant of embedded CE and the basis for Ford Sync, the entertainment and navigation system in 12 Ford vehicles.

Ford Sync enables voice control of your MP3 player and various dashboard functions. It also offers voice control of your cell phone, with a push-to-talk feature that you activate via a button on the steering wheel and a feature called AppLink that gives you voice control of some cell phone apps. Sync's phone integration feature will read text messages to you. And Ford offers subscriptions to a service that gives you traffic reports and turn-by-turn directions, and an emergency service called 911 Assist.

Earlier this year, Ford announced MyFord Touch, which features an 8-inch touchscreen interface for controlling Sync features. It also gives you an in-dash Web browser (which only works while the car is parked).

GM has OnStar, which is heavily focused on emergency services and navigation, rather than entertainment. There are several proprietary -- and very pricey, systems for high-end luxury cars. But for the most part, Ford Sync is the only real effort out there to fully integrate cell phone features, apps, entertainment and the Internet into a car dashboard in an affordable way.

Why Apple should be driving in-car entertainment

The business purpose for Ford Sync and MyFord Touch are to sell more cars. If you're torn between a Ford Mustang and a Dodge Viper, Sync might motivate you to choose Ford. The automaker deserves credit for pushing the category much further than its competitors have, and for working hard to keep the costs relatively low. Ford Sync is cool, but only in the context of zero competition. The reality is that Ford Sync is a long, long way from being an ideal solution.

Let's think for a moment about what people really want to do in their cars, besides get somewhere.

First, people want to listen to music and other audio content. Cars have had radios since the 1930s. Car radios served us well. But when given a choice outside cars, people choose music downloads or music services like Pandora over regular radio. Talk radio is hit or miss and can't hold a candle to the wonderful world of podcasting. Audio books are ideal for long road trips or boring commutes.

Second, people want navigation. In the early years, GPS navigation and turn-by-turn directions came in the form of clunky, expensive dedicated units mounted on car dashboards. But now, more and more people are using Google Maps on their cell phones. It's dangerous to do that with an iPhone, because without spoken turn-by-turn directions, users are forced to read microscopic printed directions.

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