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Apple shifts gears with CarPlay, its response to Google Now

With Apple's new integration into automobiles, the company wades into the complex waters of predictive services.

Apple CarPlay in Volvo dashboard
One of the great boons that Google had long-reserved specifically for Android users was access to Google Now, the popular artificial intelligence platform that anticipates a person's actions based on contextual information like location or personal data such as e-mails or appointment reminders.

There is, of course, now a watered-down version of Google Now for iOS users. And there are some bifurcated iOS apps that try to replicate the experience, but so far, nothing officially from Apple.

Until now. And it doesn't come on a handset. At the Geneva International Motor Show on Monday, Apple unveiled CarPlay, an integration that ties Apple's mobile operating system into automobiles, allowing for voice-enabled and touch-screen control of things like maps, driving directions, and music. Previously dubbed "iOS in the Car," the service supports third party music apps like Spotify and iHeartRadio, and will be available in cars from manufacturers like Ferrari, Mercedes, and Volvo.

But perhaps the most interesting bit of the announcement was a few innocuous details about CarPlay's artificial intelligence capabilities. The software will be able to scan through a user's data, such as his or her calendar or e-mails, to try to pull up relevant destinations and driving directions. And with that, Apple has made its biggest push into predictive services. (The company, of course, already has had its personal assistant Siri since the release of the iPhone 4S, but thus far, the service hasn't had an emphasis on technology based on the user's context.)

The announcement obviously wasn't billed as a Google Now competitor -- CarPlay's predictive functionality certainly isn't as robust -- but it's a clear step in that direction. Maynard Um, an analyst with Wells Fargo, wrote that the artificial intelligence aspect of CarPlay is a "potential future key" in making the product stand out.

Noting that other apps already do predictive services and do them well, Gartner analyst Thilo Koslowski said Apple's decision to introduce the technology on car dashboards rather than the iPhone was rooted in giving the technology a specific use.

"This type of intelligence and pro-activeness helps to address one of the key safety aspects: minimizing distracted driving," said Koslowski, who covers automotive technology.

The technology also adds another element to Apple Maps, which had a difficult start, mired with bugs and spotty navigation. If the service is so quick to offer up directions that a user thinks, "well, it's already on my screen, I might as well use it," then Apple wins goodwill from a user, and more importantly, a trove of driving data from another customer. That data also goes into making the Maps product better.

"My calendar knows where I am all the time. But when I get into my car, I still have to input a location into my GPS," said Thierry Donneau-Golencer, co-founder of Tempo, a personal assistant app focused specifically on the calendar. He said he thinks Apple's race to put predictive technology into automobiles is just one part of the puzzle in the company trying to make iOS prevalent at all times. (Donneau-Golencer said Tempo, for its part, also has been approached by three major auto manufacturers for car integrations since the company launched last year.)

Of course, when we talk about predictive technology in automobiles, there must be mention of the moon shot of an end goal: driverless cars, which obviously takes the idea of predictive road navigation to the next level. But even before the company gets to that point, Google has already begun to make software inroads with automakers. The company announced the Open Automotive Alliance in January, a partnership with carmakers General Motors, Audi, Honda, and Hyundai, as well as with chipmaker Nvidia, to bring Android to car dashboards in 2014.

Anytime a company is sifting through your data, there is always concern regarding security and privacy. The unique challenge here, Koslowski said, is in the way people think about their cars. He argues that unlike a phone, which is as personal a device as ever but is still impersonal enough to be subsidized by a cellular carrier, the car is still much more private. "It's like your cocoon," he said. "You close your door and turn up the music," he said, adding that people would be more outraged than normal to have their privacy invaded regarding their driving habits.

Still, getting a customer hooked on the technology in the car means that the company can eventually expand on it out of the vehicle, especially in the arenas of wearables and home appliances. Google beat Apple to the punch with Google Now, a stellar predictive product. "But the car is a good place to start," said Donneau-Golencer.