Can a car drive the future of Apple culture and technology?

A lot of the current discussion around Project Titan—the presumed Apple Car—focuses on the car itself as a product and what it may or may not mean for Apple's future growth. As I've said before, I find those to be among the least interesting questions. What's endlessly more fascinating to me is what Apple Car—or, if it ships, whatever it ends up being—means for Apple as a culture and how it sets up Apple's technology stack for the future.

Minimal delightful product

Project Purple, the codename of the project that became the iPhone, was ridiculously secretive. Human interface designers and software engineers were recruited internally and Steve Jobs had to personally sign off on every new disclosure.

With iPhone, and eventually iPad, though, Apple was entering markets that had been around for a decade. BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Symbian, and Palm were all established players in the phone space, as was Tablet PC in the tablet space.

That meant Apple had many years and many iterations of existing products to observe and learn from. The company could see what was working, what wasn't, where the problems and pain points were, what the solution sets and experiences could be, and ultimately where it could bring compelling value.

It was also perfect timing. Components were approaching the point where, with Apple's previous iPod experience, Mac technologies, and resources, the company could bring something to market that was more than just an amped up pager or even "smartphone"—it could make a real pocket computer.

Cellular networking was also improving to the point where mobile broadband was on the horizon, something that would give a real pocket computer a real connection to the internet — fast and always on. People knew it too, and were getting ready to move from phones to pocket computers and from voice to data.

Incumbents were, for the most part, oblivious. They focused on hardware keyboards, data compression, PC-like interfaces, and software stacks that could never scale to fit the needs of what was becoming modern mobile computing. Even new competitors like Google were initially focused on emulating what was, instead of audaciously going after what could be.

That confluence of technology and opportunity, combined with Apple's existing expertise and vision for the future, resulted in iPhone—the perfect product at the perfect time.

It couldn't do everything existing smartphones could do, but it could do specific things that delighted customers and made it compelling. As capabilities and availability expanded, and prices lowered thanks to subsidies, it became the perfect storm. And, quickly, one of the most valuable businesses on earth.

Apple Watch was different.

Chronological complexity

Gizmo, the codename for Apple Watch, was largely secretive as well. It was also based on iPhone technologies even more than iPhone was based on Mac and iPod technologies. But significant smartwatches hadn't been on the market anywhere approaching a decade by the time Apple decided to make its entrance.

That meant there was less opportunity to learn from others, identify the problems that needed solving, and present Apple-like solutions to them. Instead, Apple entered early and became part of the smartwatch experiment, having to guess at the features customers would find compelling and learn and adjust publicly, alongside everyone else.

Incumbents weren't oblivious either. In the case of some, like Pebble, they simply lacked a smartphone platform of their own and the resources to really compete on components, software, and services. In the case of Google, even though the go-to-market strategy was and is very different, the company wasn't wasting time emulating the past but clearly gunning for the future.

Moreover, traditional watches still hold an appeal traditional feature phones never did. Some people just don't want a smart watch, they want a watch watch. Unitaskers are also still on the rise, rather than being on the decline the way feature phones and pagers were. Some people just want a Fitbit and nothing more.

The Apple Watch has been, by any realistic measure, a success for Apple. One year in and it's likely the most successful wearable device to date.

But it didn't hit that minimal delightful product spot. It didn't do less compellingly—it does more at the expense of clarity.

Like with iPhone distribution and initial cost of entry, Apple can tweak Watch going forward. It's also possible some combination of miniaturization and interface improvement could lead to even bigger success in the future, though it's unlikely the computer on the wrist will supplant the one in the pocket to the extent the one in the pocket supplanted the one on the desk, at least any time soon.

That brings us back to Titan.

Faster horses

Unlike iPhone and, to some extent, Apple Watch, the car project is being talked about years before it's expected launch. Even the codename Project Titan is widely used in the media. That's likely due to scale. Building a car is simply a bigger, "louder" endeavor than building a phone or watch.

Apple seems to be treating it very differently as well. Instead of locking Titan down on campus like Purple was, it's reportedly locked down in Sunnyvale. Instead of keeping the team strictly internal, Apple's been broadly recruiting talent.

On campus, using Apple engineers, even though iPhone and Watch are distinct products, they're also distinctly Apple products. Off campus, using Apple engineers and new blood, what kind of product could an Apple Car turn out to be? On campus, using existing codebases, iOS, watchOS, and tvOS are effectively all branches of the same tree. Off campus, what kind of product could "carOS" turn out to be?

The timing is good. People do seem ready to start moving from fossil fuel to electric cars, and from manual driving to some increasing levels of automation. Competitively, there are decades of traditional automakers to draw problem sets from. If Apple's plans focus on electric vehicles, though, that's a much shorter window and pool. And few of them are oblivious incumbents.

Tesla is already on the market and already working towards its first mainstream electric vehicle. Google has been running self-driving car tests for years. Uber is rumored to be working on something as well. Amazon could conceivably field a Fire Car (discount if you agree to deliver packages as you go?). And who knows what Facebook could or would do.

That's potentially a much more competitive market than smartphones and watches were at launch. What Apple lacks in terms of an open field, the company could make up for with experience and ecosystem. It's simply a different dynamic, and different set of problems, to solve for.

The exciting thing is that Apple seems to be using it as an opportunity to solve different as well. If that's true, then Titan might not just be about a future product or future revenue stream, but about the future of Apple as a company and culture, and the future of Apple technologies as well.

Everything from the focus on privacy and security, to MacBook hardware, to watchOS and tvOS spun out of iPhone and iOS. It's defined the last ten years of Apple. What, then, could spin out of Apple Car and "carOS", both in terms of culture and technology? What could define the next ten?

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • This is a very long article to essentially say nothing. Lets drop the Apple Car, or Apple Car OS, thing until there is something more concrete about it. Rene is pumping out car articles day after day without giving us any new information, just his overboard of enthusiastic anticipation. Sent from the iMore App
  • Yes it's a lot of hype about nothing. Where's that TV that was all the rage amApple was working on? It's one thing to speculate about the car some. This article puts it over the top to just making noise for the sake of hearing yourself. Sent from the iMore App
  • I'd humbly suggest re-reading it. I might not have done a great job communicating my point, but I promise you when you look back at it post-launch you'll find a lot there.
  • I got the point. It will be especially interesting to see how the Apple Car will turn out. This is a first for Apple and reminds me of the "What will Apple be sans JS?" question. You can't really answer that question, but you can point out and contrast the backgrounds.
  • Like how we're all looking back at all that was written about the Apple TV (not the current set top box but an actual TV, the likes of which you people wrote about for months) that never happened?
  • Exactly. Writing an article telling us how an unknown product (because we don't really know what the Apple Car project entails - it could be a full car, or a standard infotainment unit hardware, or just software loaded onto someone else's hardware) is going to change the culture of a company is complete conjecture at best. It's these types of articles that clutter up the site and drown out interesting and relevant articles. That aside, I also disagree with the point of the article as well. I posit that the development of unreleased or hypothetical products, like the Apple TV (the actual TV) or the Apple Car, have very little to do with a company's culture (internally or public perception). Every large company (Apple, Google, Microsoft, etc.) have large R&D divisions that constantly churn out ideas and potential products. I seriously doubt that the development of one of these products will change the culture of a company, regardless of how high profile it is or the physical location of the development teams. It instead is the success (or lack thereof) of a product that hits the market that has a drastic change on culture. As such, even most products that do make it to the market don't change a company's core culture. iPhone, with its massive success, did for Apple but the Watch likely has not (I can't say anything about internal culture, but it hasn't changed the way Apple is perceived by the public - just reinforced old thoughts about the company). Besides, Rene doesn't even make a prediction about how it will change Apple's culture other than saying entering the car market is a different dynamic than other markets (no really, everyone knows that - it is an existing competitive market rather than a market that Apple is essentially creating). I promise that looking back at this article when (if) an Apple Car is launched, everyone will realize that nothing new or original was really said or predicted here.
  • I have to agree with the OP here. This is another in a series of articles on iMore that could be replaced in their entirety with the sentence "I have literally no idea what's going on with respect to an Apple Car" with no loss of meaning. Look, guys, I understand the impetus to talk this up - it's an interesting topic. But when you don't have any information whatsoever to pass on, why don't just avoid wasting column inches on it.
  • Rene, I agree with your general idea, but IMO, the problem is the 'old' Apple vs 'new' Apple. You're still in 'old' Apple mode, I think. re: "Human interface designers and software engineers were recruited internally and Steve Jobs had to personally sign off on every new disclosure." They just don't do much of that anymore, from what I'm observing. It's more likely the 'new' Apple is now chasing after what Google is up to, or hoping to catch a sizeable piece of tech as relates to cars... as that's what 'tech industry experts' would probably do. And, unfortunately, there's no Jobs to sign off or not sign off... just marketing departments and management types. The 'old' Apple would probably, yes, look at the current car industry and come up with something revolutionary in some ways, that probably wouldn't be what's expected. The 'new' Apple will probably come up with something flashy that is, unfortunately, what would be expected for Apple to do with a car. I'd probably have been first in line for the 'old' Apple car, but I'll probably be afraid of the 'new' Apple car, especially if it has anything autonomous about it. Leave that kind of stuff (even if it were possible/wise) to rocket scientists, or at least those who insist on near-perfection. The 'new' Apple can't even get existing products right.
  • Agree fully.
  • Companies can mature and the question becomes what next? It's a crucial time for Apple. Hopefully they stick to what they do best. Designing wonderful products for the mainstream. I still question whether an apple car is even viable for the vast majority as Apple requires too much margin. Let's not forget past iMore articles where you struggle with the question if an ipad mini had enough demand for its form factor. Or the big ipad pro. The Apple car seems more aligned with apple watch edition..something many of us were never going to want to buy. Color me skeptical about the whole self driving concept. In my mid 40s, I doubt i even see an electric car as viable (ever) for my location. I do wish Apple would find a way to make their ecosystem more universal and much improved. They'll always remain a niche part of marketshare as a premium brand. I desire more products to add to ecosystem. Products I use all the time. Mirrorless camera? Sony got me to spend 3k on one. Household products. How about that TV (especially if we're even mentioning cars)? Phones for home vs the crappy panasonic ones? How bouts a 4k camcorder? Some of those may stink or they're may be better. But sounds much better than this mythical car that hardly anyone would be able to afford. Like Apple Watch edition, it falls outside what Apple is in business to do. Although I would like to see iOS better integrated with cars. Do we really need an apple car for this to happen? Siri has to get much better.
  • Apple car is not the future of apple at this point in time. Maybe in ten years but price is way to high for mass market. We see Google home and I think that is where apple should fight back. But the last hope is wwdc if Apple doesn't pull something new Google moves faster right now and they do a good job in that
  • I think for the next several years the Apple Car will be like the Apple TV set, lots of rumors. At least with this rumor we know for a fact that Apple is actually hiring, researching and working on it. Will it ever get released as something that can be purchased, who knows.
  • So many words dedicated to vaporware. Thought I stumbled into Kickstarter for a moment there.
  • A car will not be a sustainable product for a company like Apple. A single price point product is not sustainable.
    Multiple price points will not effectively cover the pricing range necessary for profitability.
    Automotive assembly is more flexible than consumer electronics.
    Nothing in the automotive industry is developed in private.l
  • "Instead of keeping the team strictly internal, Apple's been broadly recruiting talent.' Apple HAS to recruit outside automotive talent. Despite what some people think building a car is hard, capital intensive and heavily regulated. You think cell phones are regulated? Even the height of the headlamps on a car are regulated. And regulations vary from region to region. The idea that "smart" people can just build a car is laughable. Tesla realized this early on and their ranks are filled with car industry veterans. Building a car is the (relatively) easy part, what will the after sales support be like? Who will handle it? If apple follow their usual MO, they will need to build service centers, that cash hoard can drop pretty fast if they do. You can't just make an appt at the genius bar in the mall for your car.