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As smartphones control cars, your ecosystem decision carries even more weight

Updated 4 years ago
Apple CarPlay

Think buying all news apps is a pain? Try buying a new car. For years, the switching costs involved in changing from one handset to another was little more than an hour’s wait — you know, for that painfully slow contact transfer procedure to finish up over Bluetooth. Phones made calls, sent texts, and if you were lucky, treated users to a game of Snake. Today, things are far different.

The ecosystem war isn’t a new one.

I’ve long since argued that Apple’s greatest weapon was its ability to foresee the value of entrenchment long before its primary rivals. Buying an iPhone isn’t just buying a cellular device from a company in Cupertino; it’s buying into an entire ecosystem — an ecosystem that’s increasingly difficult to get out of. Everything from app purchases to contact arrangements to photo rolls to miscellaneous metadata is tied to whatever ecosystem you choose.

Be it Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, iOS, or some other flavor, each additional day you spend in a given system makes it that much more challenging to leave.

That said, even now it’s totally feasible. I’ve oscillated between Android and iOS for a number of years, and while it’s a bit of work to make the switch, the total cost is well under $50 (for my library of apps) and can be done in under a day. (In fact, remembering to switch off iMessage before swapping my SIM out may be the most vital piece of the entire puzzle.) Throwing a car into the mix, however, changes everything.

Consider the stakes raised

This week’s CarPlay reveal uncovers an entirely new aspect of the aforesaid war. Without question, it’ll go down as the most expensive and detrimental of all ecosystem decisions to date. Soon — as in, later this year — automakers are going to start shipping automobiles which effectively require a new iPhone for their infotainment systems to reach full potential. Which is categorically awesome if you’re an iPhone loyalist. On the other side of the equation, Google is purportedly working on a similar solution, which would (in theory, at least) enable Android users to receive a tailored in-car experience of their own.

I’ve yearned for such a setup for years, as $3,000+ factory navigation systems in automobiles have grown woefully inadequate when it comes to competing with $500 smartphones. In fact, I’ve longed for automakers to simply install LCDs and a connector in order to let my phone do the dirty work, and I’m pretty sure anyone who has had the misfortune of using an infotainment system over the past half-decade would agree. The issue, of course, was always safety, and it appears that Apple has that nipped in the bud with CarPlay. Finally, we’re on the brink of being able to buy multi-thousand dollar motorcars with technology that rivals what we’ve all been carrying around in our pockets for years.


The catch, however, is that CarPlay only works with an iPhone. It’s not far-fetched to assume that many prospective auto shoppers will be eying CarPlay support as a determining factor in which vehicle they purchase, and once they do, it’s practically a guarantee that they’ll remain within the iOS universe for the life of said vehicle. CarPlay, in essence, allows the iPhone to become the brains of your interior. Everything from calling to aural entertainment to adjusting the temperature can (and will) be tied to the iPhone — remove that one element, and your entire vehicle loses a tremendous amount of luster.

I’m referencing CarPlay due to its impending realness, but it’s safe to assume that a Google or Microsoft-powered arrangement would present the same strangleholds, albeit with different mobile platforms. Let’s say, for example, that John Doe purchases a new Volvo later this year in order to power its insides with an iPhone 5s. Next year, HTC reveals what can only be described as the world’s most magnificent smartphone — a phone based on Android. Pre-vehicle purchase, Mr. Doe would face a small amount of switching costs as it pertains to re-buying apps, and he’d probably spend a solid day transferring data and getting things just so. Post-vehicle purchase, Mr. Doe probably won’t even entertain the thought of switching platforms.

If that isn’t power, what is?

A complicated duo

It should be noted that this introduction places Apple in a precarious spot as well. As I’ve written about in the past, automobiles typically refresh on a five to seven year cycle — Apple refreshes its iPhone range on an annual basis. Think of it this way: if an automobile that was refreshed in 2007, the same year the initial iPhone was revealed, it may not see an interior overhaul until next year. Suffice it to say, practically no iPhone accessory unveiled in 2007 works with the latest iPhone today, and this catastrophic misalignment in refresh cycling will no doubt cause Apple and Google alike plenty of headaches in the years ahead.

Put simply, I can’t envision a world where Apple continues to support CarPlay if automakers are hellbent on maintaining their conventional refresh roadmaps. Mobile technology progresses entirely too quickly for this kind of marriage to remain viable. My hunch is that Apple has somehow convinced its partners in the auto realm to commit to far faster refreshes — at least as it pertains to automotive interiors — in order to keep pace with what’s to come.

Legacy woes are unavoidable, but Apple has done a fairly commendable job at supporting its older products better than most. That said, there’s simply no way a car revealed in 2014 will be capable of handling whatever iPhone rolls out in 2021, which (hopefully) means that the automotive CEOs of the world are finally understanding that refresh cycles are going to have to hasten.

Whatever happens in terms of speed, the phone’s headfirst dive into the car introduces an entirely new dimension to the ecosystem war. There’s a better-than-average chance that the kind of infotainment system you buy will dictate your phone purchase for as long as you own the car; moreover, you aren’t apt to trade in your CarPlay-enabled vehicle at the first hint of a tremendously powerful Android device.

Oh, and once the major mobile players figure out a way to infiltrate the home? Yeah — so much for dating outside of your chosen platform.

Darren Murph has roamed the consumer electronics landscape for nearly a decade, earning a Guinness World Record as the planet’s most prolific professional blogger along the way. His work has been featured in Popular Science, Engadget, BGR, Mazda’s Zoom-Zoom owner’s magazine,, Gadling, Thrillist, and ShermansTravel, and he has appeared on ABC, PBS, CTV and NBC. He is presently dabbling in quantum physics in a bid to construct the 30-hour day.