When Apple previewed CarPlay earlier this week it set gearheads' pulses racing. It also made some developers green with envy. That’s because Apple chose to bless only four third-party developers with access to CarPlay ahead of its launch. I spoke to one of them to see what it’s all about.
The lucky third parties who have access to that private API are Spotify, Beats Radio, iHeartRadio, and Stitcher. It’s of course easy to see what all these apps have in common: They stream music and can be seen as the successor to "old fashioned" radio.
Brian Lakamp, president of Digital for Clear Channel Media and Entertainment, oversees subsidiary iHeartRadio, and agreed to speak with me about his early experience integrating with CarPlay.
"Apple is pretty selective about how they disclose information," says Lakamp. "Apple made us aware of the opportunity. We were enthusiastic to participate and then worked closely with them to build the demo that they just demoed in Geneva."
Lakamp wouldn’t reveal when Apple approached the company, but he says that once they did and iHeartRadio signed on, developing a CarPlay-compatible iHeartRadio app wasn’t a major coding challenge—mainly because Apple did a good job with the API allowing developers to add CarPlay support to their existing apps instead of having to make new, dedicated versions.
"The way that Apple constructed this is a relatively thin layer that we need to build to copy existing apps that move some of the control and command structure to the console," Lakamp says. "Then the console simply acts as a remote control to your app. It was a relatively light integration."
As for how long redeveloping the iHeartRadio app to include CarPlay support took?
"Without giving specific dates, it was fairly quick for us," Lakamp says. "Apple has done a good job of doing what you need to do in a car. I can tell you that we spend a lot of time on our custom integrations thinking about how you keep an experience highly functional, but highly simple—because driver distraction is something that you really need to think about—and how you take the core of a product and can convey it as safely and simply as possible."
The framework is made up primarily of two UIViews: a directory (for songs and artists) and on-screen controls.
"Apple provided twin lanes for the UI and a framework for the UI to operate within, and so made that part of it relatively easy as well. It's a relatively straightforward directory structure and a player structure that has a limited set of controls, or limited set of things you can do. They've got a consistency of feel on the platform, as you might expect from Apple, and a simplicity around how you browse through a menu of choices," says Lakamp.
While it may be considered a no-brainer that a streaming digital radio service is excited to be one of the first to be chosen by Apple to be given access to a new platform, I wonder if iHeartRadio’s parent company Clear Channel is apprehensive now that Apple has its sights set on cars.
After all, Apple frequently makes inroads into industries under the guise of helping them out—the iTunes Music Store was sold to the record labels as a way to fight piracy—before becoming the distribution channel that record companies now rely on most.
Lakamp says that's not something Clear Channel is worried about—from Apple or anyone else. Despite the "old fashioned" nature of AM/FM’s technology, and those who crow about its impending demise at the hands of digital streaming, Lakamp says radio isn’t going anywhere.
"I can tell you from my perspective that that idea is somewhat crazy," he says. "Technology has evolved every step of the way: AM to FM to satellite to Internet. None of those have removed the need for the preceding technology. We're in the fourth, fifth generation of things right now. If anything, they've been additive, and they've extended the opportunity. Every car on the planet has AM/FM radio. It's an easy, reliable way to get at content and get at the personalities that you love. Every car has it, unless the radio has been stolen."
Some have also asserted that the sheer number of car makers that have signed on to Apple’s CarPlay initiative—there are 15 and counting—means that the auto industry is at a loss on how to bring the car into the 21st century and instead are happy to give Apple control of the work.
That’s something that GM, which has just launched its own automobile software API, disagrees with, insisting that by supporting CarPlay, the company is proud to offer its drivers a wide array of options for in-car infotainment systems.
"Partnering with Apple on the CarPlay initiative furthers our mission to bring vehicles into our owners digital lives and their digital lives into their vehicles," says Mary Chan, president of General Motors’ Global Connected Consumer unit. "We see huge opportunities for the iOS platform paired with OnStar 4G LTE connectivity in future Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, and Cadillac vehicles."
But the company stressed that "CarPlay is not a replacement for any of the current GM infotainment systems (MyLink, CUE, or IntelliLink) and their offerings. It is another option that we’re investigating with Apple, to bring drivers the connectivity they desire in their vehicles."
Despite some vigilant eyes from others in the industry, however, Lakamp says he’s excited about Apple’s entry into the automotive field.
"I think that what they're doing here is taking a simple, clean, elegant approach through CarPlay," he says. "We've been working with Apple closely for a number of years, with iOS as a platform, on iPhone and iPad. We're interested and excited to see them extend their capabilities into the car and proud to be a partner with them to include iHeart in their initial foray in the car."
The reasoning behind the limited access, according to an Apple employee with knowledge of the plans who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, is because Apple wants to go "slow and steady" with CarPlay. The employee stressed safety behind the wheel was a major concern, but wouldn’t comment if more developers might get access to CarPlay’s private APIs once iOS 7.1 ships. We may have to wait for WWDC in June to find out.