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TheStreet Open House

#DigitalSkeptic: Smartphones Could Make Buying Smart Car Dumb

NEW YORK (TheStreet) Mary T. Barra, Alan Mulally -- and for that matter, every other carmaker CEO -- better do like I did and talk smart cars with Rick Case.

"No matter what happens with smart cars, or in-car navigation, or intelligent driving systems or whatever whiz-bang gadgetry gets plugged into a vehicles, the question will always be, 'What the heck happens to my iPhone?'" said the chief executive for Nite Ize, the Boulder, Colo., product design and peripheral company.

Case was making the, uh, case for the indispensability of smartphones and mobile devices in vehicles while giving me a fascinating, hands-on tour of his latest generation of in-car accessories. His Nite Ize gadgets really do make it remarkably easy to safely and legally retrofit most any iPhone, Android or other portable device into any car or truck.

Be warned. It's easy to dismiss Case's low-cost Steelie Car Mount Kit ($35) as just another cheap aftermarket smart-device gizmo. But after testing this thing for a month or two, this kit -- along with dozens of other aftermarket device mounts -- absolutely enables near frictionless retrofitting of powerful mobile device navigation, entertainment and social media into any vehicle. In fact, these mounts are so low-cost and innovative that they often outperform(!) pricey smart car systems installed by carmakers.

"We make a lot of accessories for a lot of primary products. And what you learn is, if it is not accessibly convenient, I don't care what you paid for that product -- what you bought is not that useful to you," he said. "What I realized when we got into this product was the car is just another place where a consumer is trying to solve the problem of conveniently accessing a product -- that the product's a smartphone is almost beside the point."

The un-after-car market
What's sobering for smart- and connected-car investors is that, even though Case sells aggressively into cars, he's not actually in the automotive industry. This entrepreneur started his firm way back in 1989 as mostly an outdoor product company, going door to door selling flashlight headbands to area specialty retailers.

His line exploded over the years to include more than 500 products including flashlights, cable ties and other product-enhancement gadgets, and viewed in that context the Steelie is really nothing more than a clever extension of this product-enabling ethic. It uses a magnetic socket stuck to the back of a phone that slots into a dashboard mount.

And it makes it devilishly easy to control most any mobile device in most any vehicle.

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