Apple's CarPlay got precious little stage time in a WWDC keynote filled with announcements for every single platform that Apple services, but make no mistake: the few seconds that Craig Federighi spent talking about it was a big deal for the auto industry, and it's going to get even bigger over the coming years.
Federighi announced, among other things, that CarPlay will begin allowing automakers to add apps into the system starting with the release of iOS 9 this fall. That means the system will be gaining a far tighter bond with the car in which it's running than it's had so far. An automaker's CarPlay app could, for instance, control the FM / AM radio or the climate control — functions that run very close to the car's hardware. At present, control of a car's most basic functions typically requires that a driver switch out of CarPlay and into the car's native user interface. For users, it's a jolting experience — if you're routing to a destination using Apple Maps and listening to music on iTunes (or, soon, Apple Music) but you want to up the cabin temperature one degree, you've got to bounce out to a system that looks completely different, then switch back into CarPlay when you're done. Theoretically, this new feature would prevent that kind of context-switching by turning all of a car's functionality into an app or two.
Apple and automakers are crafting an ever-growing Matryoshka doll
In a way, Apple and automakers are crafting an ever-growing Matryoshka doll here: the car companies have largely sought to compartmentalize CarPlay and Android Auto by turning them into "apps" inside their own user experience — a user experience that has often lagged in quality and performance versus what Apple and Google have been able to make. Now, by opening up the platform to car apps, Apple is turning the tables by compartmentalizing the car itself.
Who will win the battle? In the short term, the odds are in automakers' favor: Android Auto and CarPlay are still very difficult to find, and it wouldn't seem that they've become make-or-break features for prospective buyers in dealerships. (Though that'll likely change over time.) The GMs and Toyotas of the world — companies that are still dead-set on controlling the dashboard experience as much as they're able — aren't going to feel much pressure right now to make apps that eliminate the need to ever visit Chevy MyLink, or Cadillac Cue, or Toyota Entune.
If that's not heel-digging, I don't know what is
In fact, Toyota hasn't committed to any date for rolling out CarPlay or Android Auto — and it just announced that it's looking into deploying Ford's open-source connected car platform, SmartDeviceLink. If that's not heel-digging, I don't know what is.
It'll be fascinating to see which automakers bite at this announcement, how hard, and how soon. It's likely to imagine that Hyundai would be near the top of the list of car companies buying into it, since they've already announced a CarPlay-compatible dashboard stripped of extra UI cruft launching next year. But Toyota — the world's biggest car company — isn't going to be anywhere near the leading edge on this.
Correction: The article originally stated that context switching is also required for Android Auto, but Android Auto does have a UI tab that allows automakers to interact directly with the car. It is not currently implemented in any production vehicles.