the next market I’d like to see Apple dominate (after they’re done crushing the cell phone industry)

May 11th, 2008

I went looking at car stereo “head units” this weekend, and while there are some that have the feature set I’m looking for (CD playback, mp3/aac file playback via CD-R or USB, iPod integration, Bluetooth integration (Alpine in particular seem like they are doing the feature set right, at least)), they are all so fucking ugly that I can’t really get psyched about any of them. Each and every one was encrusted and bedazzled by red and blue glowing elements that wouldn’t look out of place in the movie “Tron,” which is super-duper great if you’re into light-cycle racing, but otherwise, hideous and likely to look way out of place next to your other dashboard controls.

And the interfaces — good lord, the interfaces. Every single one was “press source again and again and again until you get the right music source, then hit the select button, then dial to the correct playlist, then hit select again, and then, and then, and then” — overwhelming and cumbersome*, and you’re supposed to pull this all off while driving. God forbid you’ve got GPS, a cellphone, or XM radio going on as well.

In short, the state of car stereo design in 2008 is almost exactly like the state of smartphone design in 2006, pre-iPhone. Which is to say: in 2006 there were expensive devices that made phone calls, played music, and let you read your email and browse the web, but none of them did all of those things very well. It took Apple to come along and make a game-changing gizmo like the iPhone before people started warming to the idea that these were all viable activities that they one could reasonably expect to be able to do without compromises in a handheld device. Similarly, the car stereo market has devices that do what I want — play CDs, play mp3/aac files, and hook up to the iPod — but the interfaces are atrocious and the aesthetics are worse. Apple could come down like the hammer of Thor on this market and fix this muddled mess in one shot.


* Note to hardware user interface designers: if your design has the user hitting a single button over and over to get to the option they want, you’re doing it wrong.

4 Responses to “the next market I’d like to see Apple dominate (after they’re done crushing the cell phone industry)”

  1. Topher says:

    You shouldn’t need a Rocket Science Degree to turn on a car stereo. But they should require a licence if you want to put a tonsil-rattling subwoofer in the trunk.

  2. redbeard says:

    the infiniti g35 has a nice premium auto package. it has a ipod interface usable from the touch screen (playlists, artists, songs, etc.), a hard drive to rip cds to (9Gb), a compact flash reader to play mp3s from, single cd/audio mp3 player in dash, 6 cd changer in trunk, am/fm/xm radio — all very functional and attractive.

  3. Topher says:

    So, the infinity g35 is just a $32,000 iPod adapter.

    Start saving up, Jeff.

  4. Ben says:

    I just bought a Pioneer Premier DEH-P5900iB about a month ago and I love it.

    iPod control is included (most are extra $35 cables), as well as two line ins, three RCA outs (for that tonsil-rattling subwoofer and comp amps), and the ability to play non-DRM data files off CDR. Bluetooth, USB, DVD, CD-Changer, etc. are all add-on options, but available.

    I would have preferred an Alpine headunit, but it didn’t work with my 3G and I wasn’t spending extra on a f-ing iPod cable.

    The iPod control consists of plugging it into the dock connector, pushing List, and moving the knob up and down (or twisting, same as moving your finger around an iPod wheel) and pushing the knob in or right (same as pushing the center button on an iPod) or left to go back (same as iPod “menu”). So, aside from having to push “List” , and leaving the source on iPod all the time, it’s exactly the same complexity as using an actual iPod interface. Maybe I’ve been using my iPod wrong, but I believe I have to push the center button over and over and over (three times) to select artist/album/song.

    It’s not that bad. You’ll get used to it. Or you won’t and you’ll be using line-in/fm transmitter/or some other horrible bastardization until Apple starts making headunits.

    But I agree, the Tron-like overuse of blue LEDs is a rampant problem in the headunit industry.