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TheStreet Open House

#DigitalSkeptic: Smartphones Could Make Buying Smart Car Dumb

Once I started using this tool, Case's larger point became powerfully clear: Low-cost mounts blur the line between in-car technology and general consumer electronics. "I love getting into my truck and seeing all those systems," he said. "I am a major gadget head." But Case points out that these in-car nav, entertainment and vehicle management apps often demand users learn how to manage complex software that differs from the smartphone experience they already know

"I believe the point is to have something that works throughout the customer's day," he said. "The iron rule is the customer really, really, really does not want to learn anything new."

And almost no research is required to learn that Nite Ize is not the only mount maker betting that in-car intelligence is better served by generic portable devices retrofits. For just $20, the Koomus Dashboard K2 mounts on any car -- and, at least to my eye, can do so in a safer position for the driver compared with pricey in-car navigation systems. I also like how the Kenu Airframe, at $25, mounts to any heating vent in a car dashboard, offering the terrific option of putting a portable device on the left side of the steering column, near the driver's door, as opposed to right side, in the already overcrowded central console.

Smartphone makers aim at smart car
As Lauren Fix, an independent car systems analyst in Lancaster, N.Y., explained, there is a growing tension between car manufacturer-installed connected auto systems and the mobile tools coming from major mobile makers such as Apple, Samsung and Motorola.

"The pace of development of in-car based apps that work well in a properly mounted cellphone is growing," she said. "Though I still see most drivers preferring true in-car systems, the race is most definitely on -- and smart-car makers are going to have to compete with smartphone makers."

Sure enough. though General Motors has bet heavily on a iPhone-Siri integration with its new Chevy Equinox crossover, Apple recently announced a CarPlay in-car app that works seamlessly on the iPhone -- and makes much of the current GM/Siri product obsolete. And Google recently upgraded its Maps software to make it more auto friendly, again essentially competing with in-car navigation systems pre-installed by carmakers

Investors better get right with the fact that carmakers no longer compete with each other to bring smartness to the American road. They now compete with large and aggressive consumer electronics companies, many of whom operate at much thinner margins.

"The car is just another environment that users find themselves in," Case said. "It's cool, there are a lot unique challenges about the car. But there is nothing fundamentally different about it from clothing or bikes. Or your desktop. It's just part of that continuum of moving around."

This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.
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