Apple’s New CarPlay System Will Turn Tens Of Millions Of Cars Into iPhone Accessories

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Apple’s newly announced CarPlay, which is the rebranded version of iOS in the Car, a system for converting your vehicle’s in-car entertainment system into an iOS-powered dashboard fed content and brains by your phone, is a play that could massively expand the Apple mobile ecosystem – by turning cars into app-enabled iPhone accessories.

The CarPlay system was revealed today during the Geneva Motor Show, where partners Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo all announced that they’d begin shipping CarPlay-enabled vehicles to drivers this week. In 2014, that group will expand to include Honda, Hyundai and Jaguar, and beyond that it’ll ship on cars from BMW, Chevrolet, Ford, Kia, Land Rover, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Open, Peugeot-Citroën, Subaru, Suzuki and Toyota.

There are still some manufacturers missing from that list, including Fiat’s stateside brand of Chrysler and any car company from VW Group, but really that means Apple will soon have direct access to a platform expansion that could put its products and software front and center in potentially over 15 million new places annually – that’s how many new cars were sold globally last year.

The integration works through the iPhone’s lightning port, meaning that it’s only compatible with iPhone 5, iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c, and of course not ever new car sold will have CarPlay integration built-in (it’ll likely be an add-on option for many of these manufacturers, since it represents a chance to offer additional value and that’s generally the way upgrade packages work).

Still, it’s a big potential market, and while it does represent existing people who already own iPhone devices, it still has the power to impact iPhone sales via the network effect, the same way existing ecosystem accessories do. The more devices ‘Made for iPhone’ or featuring app-enabled software and features, the better for Apple’s overall ability to make its gadgets appealing to customers.

But CarPlay has even more upside than most of the accessories in Apple’s web; It represents a way to get actual iOS usage time up, during a time when usage would otherwise be more or less impossible to get. The system is designed to make it easy to access and use your iPhone’s services and software via Siri, touchscreen display panels, and knobs, buttons and other hardware controls. It offers access to hands-free calling functions, but also Siri search, messages and Maps. That last one means that Apple will have an opportunity to push its own maps over those of competitors like Google, and that’s a big deal for its efforts to improve the service.

All that additional data gathered will help improve the accuracy of maps and directions, and in turn that will mean better performance and reliability for consumers. Plus, it’s a host of location data that was going uncaptured before, which Apple can use anonymized to help it paint a better picture of iOS device usage overall.

Finally, Apple touts that this will work with other apps, including Podcasts and a number of music services from third-parties including Beats Radio, iHeartRadio, Spotify and Stitcher. Again, software with car-focused functionality represents an opportunity for Apple to grow its ecosystem. Based on this first reveal, it looks likely to take the form of a gradual, hand-selected roll-out more akin to how Apple has handled adding Apple TV software partners, but in the end it means more software, in more places, for more iOS users, and key to keeping usage up.

Apple touts usage at virtually every event these days; it uses this as a metric with merit, one in which it says you can actually glean more valuable information about user satisfaction than in something more general like total unit sales. CarPlay gives its users more excuses to venture away from the fold, even for temporary absences, and that’s bound to help push customer loyalty among iOS users even higher.