6 ways the iPhone 4S, iOS 5 fall short in the car

Apple unveiled the next update to the iPhone and iOS today, but in-car use still leaves much to be desired.

Apple iPhone 4S
Apple unveiled the next update to the iPhone and iOS today, but in-car use still leaves much to be desired. Apple

The Internet almost split today under the duress of a billion users clicking around for the latest and greatest news from Apple's "Let's talk iPhone" keynote. But as the dust settles on the iPhone 4S reveal and the announcement of iOS 5, users are also finding themselves of split opinion about what they saw. Like most who tuned in to CNET's obsessive coverage, I'm slightly disappointed at what I saw. Not because it wasn't amazing (it wasn't) but because of all of the missed opportunities for Apple to gain ground in the automotive space.

Before you run to the comments to tell me that Apple is already on top in the automotive space, know that I'm aware . However, if Apple wants to remain on top it's going to have to continue to innovate to stave off the looming threat of Google's Android. With that in mind, I've rounded up six opportunities that I see for Apple to improve the in-car experience of the iPhone 4S and iOS 5.

Apple unveiled Google Maps integration back in 2009... and hasn't spoken of it since. James Martin/CNET

iOS still lacks true turn-by-turn directions. At least, it lacks a built-in version of this functionality. Perhaps Apple doesn't want to upset its navigation app developers. Perhaps, there's yet still an Apple Maps software baking somewhere in Cupertino. Whatever the case, Google's Maps with Navigation for Android still rules the roost here when turn-by-turn directions are involved.

As good as Siri is, you still have to get touchy to use it. The issue with so-called hands-free controls is that you still have to initiate the conversation with your hands. In the iOS 5's new Siri beta software 's case, that means tapping a button on the screen or pressing and holding the iPhone's home button. Google makes its users jump through a similar hoop with its voice search system, but app maker Vlingo seems to have gotten it right with its Vlingo InCar beta for Android phones. Users simply say, "Hey Vlingo." and the software springs to life with no physical contact required. It would be nice to see something like this in Apple's already conversational Siri system.

Google Car Home
Google's Car Home for Android isn't perfect, but it's a step in the right directions. Google

The screen is still a bit on the small side. CNET's David Carnoy mentioned this as one of the five biggest disappointments of the iPhone 4S. The iPhone's been rocking its 3.5-inch touch screen since the first generation was launched back in 2007. Sure, they've crammed more pixels in there and, in the hand, it is still a rather gorgeous handset. However when used safely in the car (that is, windshield or dashboard mounted) that little LCD will be positioned an arm's length away, at least 2 feet from your eyeballs. At that distance, I think we can all agree that viewing maps and tapping to play media could benefit from a bit more real estate.

The iOS interface is largely still unoptimized for in-car use. The iPhone's interface is pretty intuitive when the device is held in the hand, but hitting the one of 20 tiny icons on the home screen that launches your navigation app when the device is at an arm's length can be tricky. Google at least took a shot at a car-specific interface with the launch of its Car Home app on the original Motorola Droid, but it hasn't done anything major with the interface since. Admittedly, none of the major smartphone operating systems has perfected the art of using the phone in the car.

iPod Out is still largely ignored and underutilized. To date, only a handful of OEM manufacturers have expressed an interest in taking advantage of the iPod Out multimedia screen mirroring protocol introduced in iOS 4. Additionally, only one shipping aftermarket product that I'm aware of (Pioneer's AppRadio) actually takes advantage of it. Even then, iPod Out is a video output of simplified version of the iPhone's iPod app with no touch sensitivity built into it, even when connected to a touch sensitive monitor. We'd have liked to see iPod Out updated to be more intuitive.

Even without an iPod Out update, this would have been a good time for Apple to take advantage ofall of the eyes pointed its direction today to draw attention to this underutilized functionality or trot out a major automotive OEM partnership.

iPad in a dashboard
Many iPads have found their ways into dashboards and headrests. We'd like to see Apple officially support a car optimized interface. YouTube/Sound Man Car Audio

What about the iPad? Perhaps this is a discussion for another day, but with more and more users and aftermarket shops looking at Apple's iPad as an all-in-one media solution for the dashboard and the rear seats, there is a tremendous opportunity for Apple to build functionality into iOS 5 that allows the tablet to fit more comfortably into the automotive cabin. From a software standpoint, we're probably just retreading our last point. However, factor hardware integration into the mix and perhaps one day you'll be able to buy a Smart ForTwo or a Prius (or whatever it is that Apple users drive) with a iPad shaped hole in its dashboard and bring your own tech.

Again, we're only going on what we see and perhaps someone at One Infinite Loop is working on every item on this wish list for unveiling as a future date. I certainly hope so.

 

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