|Thursday, March 31, 2005
15:25 - The Last Mile
I'm sure this idea has already been discussed, batted back and forth, refined, rethought, and modeled in 3D to the point where my even mentioning it is the very pinnacle of pathetic—but here goes anyway.
The guy I was having lunch with the other day, the same one who wanted the tablet Mac, confronted me before I'd even got my seatbelt on with a grievance he had with iTunes: "Why is it," he said, chin jutting aggressively, "that iTunes doesn't allow me to take the DRM'd songs that I download from the store, and make MP3 CDs from them that I can play in my car?"
The business reason, I sputtered, ought to be obvious: you really expect Apple to productize a feature whereby you can quickly and easily defeat the DRM scheme that they've so painstakingly designed to be attractive both to customers and to the labels, without which the labels would immediately pull out of the deal?
"Yes," he said, insisting that MP3 CDs are his most common listening method. All his iTunes-using friends, he said, take the slightly underhanded (and ridiculously circuitous) route of burning the AAC files as audio CDs, and then re-importing them as unrestricted MP3s, and then burning those onto MP3 CDs for the car. This capability has always been in iTunes, he said. Why not allow people to just burn MP3s directly, converted from AAC on the fly?
Well, because allowing you to burn CDDA discs and then re-import MP3s is a linear, low-volume piracy risk... and direct conversion is a much higher-volume risk, one that Apple—or the labels—wouldn't be interested in taking.
And yet... his indignation is understandable. Because what he describes is a common enough use case these days. Now that MP3-capable audio decks are shipped with what must be a majority of new cars, to say nothing of their ubiquity in the aftermarket, Apple's recommended solution to the in-car listening workflow—getting an iPod and hooking it up via a tape or FM adapter, or a line-in cable if your head unit is fortunate enough to have one—seems like an ugly compromise, a hack taped into place to compensate for a reality that is diverging out of Steve's control and vision.
That's because, BMW/Mercedes/Aston Martin aside, Apple has not yet come up with a truly serious solution to this use case at all.
When people listen to their music in the car, they don't want to have to fiddle around with dangling cords, push a bunch of buttons, squint at a little screen and a fidgety touch-pad, wrestle with the implicit controls of the car manufacturer's audio unit interface that auto-reverses the tape deck every few seconds if it senses no signal, juggle the in-line volume levels on two separate devices to minimize hiss and keep from being deafened when they switch audio sources, and rest the iPod either in the ashtray or out of sight in the glove compartment. They don't want to have to limit their music navigation to predefined playlists. They don't want to have to map the low-res display of "TRACK 01" in their minds to what, on the iPod's screen, is a full track/artist/album display with album art and progress bars and everything. That's not a solution. It's a kludge.
Which means there's still money on the table for Apple to take.
What people like my lunch companion would ideally want, they think, would be if audio head units would support AAC CDs just like they support MP3 CDs. But Apple is reluctant to license AAC to third parties; it's taken them this long to license it to Motorola for their phones, and that effort is all but stillborn. So AAC-capable CD players are an unlikely possibility. But something better still might be the answer anyway.
Imagine, then, what these guys conspicuously missed: if Apple were to produce its own car audio head unit.
The image just draws itself in one's mind, doesn't it?
A smooth white rectangular face in your dashboard. In the lower left, a horizontal slot—as wide as an iPod, and as high as it is thick—into which you slide it like your bank card into an ATM, screen up. The screen on the iPod is no longer readable, but that's okay—because the head unit itself has a much bigger screen, which shows the iPod's whole listing and more, much more lavishly and with eminent readability from the driver's seat at speed.
No iPod-style track-pad. No, really: knobs. Conventional knobs, like in my Jetta, with an easy movement and soft detentes every 1/12 turn or so. One knob for scrolling/selecting, one for volume. Just the way car stereos have always been. Because there's no need to conserve space in this kind of application, and no need to avoid having knobs that stick out; this isn't an iPod, where small size and smoothness of surface are paramount design criteria. On an in-dash audio unit, things sticking out are perfectly fine, and there's an abundance of space. Besides, you want to be able to reach for a knob and twiddle it without taking your eyes from the road, just as has always been a criterion of good car stereos time out of mind. Just as how iTunes doesn't have iPod-style controls because it's not a physical device (and thus is not susceptible to physical device constraints). Use the right controls for the right application, and don't adhere to the proverbial "foolish consistency" (as did whoever designed the iTunes controller widget in Dashboard).
(Scrolling acceleration wouldn't be possible with knobs, though; scrolling at 1:1 speed through lists of thousands of songs might get pretty tedious. Some sort of hybrid solution might be called for here, like a knob with a kind of fingertip cup attachment you can use to twiddle it in a continuous motion.)
Those knobs would also control AM/FM radio, too, in any case, and station presets would be built into the big-screen interface. Indeed, it might be possible to get away with only having those two knobs for control, plus the standard four iPod buttons (Forward, Back, Menu, and Play/Pause). But another row of radio preset buttons wouldn't be the end of the world, nor would physical controls for fade/balance and bass/treble adjustments. There's plenty of space if they wanted to go that direction, and physical buttons are better for control while driving than the brow-furrowing all-software miasma of BMW's iDrive (a model that Apple would be wise to avoid in developing this solution). Let's not make changing the radio station a four-keystroke affair, when we can just turn a knob like in the good ol' days, hmm?
A switch between the iPod and AM/FM would complete the control loadout; because there wouldn't need to be any other sources. No CD slot. No tape deck. If you've got an iPod to dock into this thing, CDs are superfluous, and it's dangerous (to them) to carry them in your car anyway, where the sun can bake the labels off them and ruin the data surface. (You may sense the voice of experience speaking.) And no need even for a line-in jack, the one feature that automakers seem so curiously unwilling to add to their stock head units, even though they know how much easier it would make interacting with their customers' iPods, with the best possible sound of all extant adapter solutions, and the cheapest possible connector (a simple mini-DIN cable). Even that is superfluous.
And with that, the user experience is utterly simplified. You sit down in the driver's seat. You whip out your iPod; you slide it into the slot and chunk it into place. You hear the little br-r-rlap noise as it wakes up, thinking it's in a Dock. The big screen comes alive and switches automatically to the iPod source. And now, instead of fumbling with non-dedicated steering-wheel buttons or gingerly tracing lines on the iPod's trackpad with an index finger to find the music you want to start your journey with, you grab hold of the navigation knob, scroll through the menus, and tap it inward to start the music playing. When you park, you simply grab the iPod out of the slot and go. No more manually turning off the head unit to prevent the tape adapter from seizing up or the FM receiver on its unused-except-by-your-transmitter frequency from bursting into static when you shut off the device. With as much finesse as a modern-day CD unit remembering its place on the disc, the Apple unit would simply go silent, or revert to the last radio station you were on if it had been playing the radio when you stuck the iPod into it.
The interesting thing is that any company—not just Apple—could make an in-dash unit that emulates the iPod Dock. Anyone can make a connector that supplies power and directs the audio signal out to the speakers. There's no need for any AAC decoding; the iPod itself does that. But it would require Apple to implement the screen interface, including the extra layer that would be necessary for driving the iPod's controls and interacting with its native settings, to do such things as apply Sound Check normalization to the raw Dock-level output (currently, presumably for a good reason, Sound Check only applies to the headphone jack output). And to be completely, baldly partisan, it would take Apple to make a head unit that I would feel comfortable installing in my car. See, I refuse to install any aftermarket head unit that has the ubiquitous flashy blue and purple glowing lights, the "Tokyo at Night" graphic-equalizer display, the faux-metallic finish, the "I'm not part of the original car—break in and steal me!" ostentatiousness belying a garish squalor that renders just about any head unit on the market unfit to even presume to integrate stylistically with the dashboard of my VW. The only thing for which I would violate that principle would, indeed, be a shiny white iPod-like console with a bright crisp screen and an Apple logo.
(Of course, the face would have to be removable to prevent theft. Such a device would probably be one of the most stealable items in automotive history.)
(Hell, I'd steal one.)
UPDATE: Bitweever has comments, including the suggestion of a Bluetooth connection. Nice idea... I'm worried about keeping the cost down, though. Same reason why I'd be reluctant to see a self-contained iPod-equivalent head unit that has its own hard drive and downloads your music over AirPort whenever you're parked in your garage: I want this to be seen as an iPod accessory, not a geek trophy in its own right—and I want it to look at home in a Jetta, not just in a Phaeton.
(Besides, Bluetooth would imply that pre-Bluetooth iPods wouldn't work with such a head unit, and the advent of the elegance of the dock connector on the bottom is what I think gives modern iPods the flexibility that only the first-generation model lacked with its 6-pin FireWire port.)
But, hey, this is blue-sky speculation—and the very fact that we're doing it probably means Apple will never allow such a product to see the light of day, just to keep from being predictable...
UPDATE: Oh, and don't miss his fisking of a really laughable list of "tips" from Microsoft on buying a music player.
"Let a professional make your next playlist." Honestly.
There's a Simpsons quote for every occasion, you know; and in this case, I've gotta go with: "I'd also like to express... my... fondness for... that... particular beer."