Apple: Without a Much-Improved Siri, CarPlay Will Be a Dud

Author's Note: This article was written late last week while testing Eyes-Free Siri on a Chevy Sonic. Monday morning Apple announced CarPlay, billed as "the best iPhone experience on four wheels." Curiously, there's no direct mention of Eyes-Free Siri in Apple's marketing or official press release on this new feature. Based on the the way Eyes-Free Siri functions, that's not a surprise (as illustrated in this article). For CarPlay to be a success, Siri must be better. Hopefully we'll see a new and improved Siri accompany this renewed in-car infotainment effort from Apple. If it's basically Eyes-Free Siri rebranded, but not improved, don't expect much. It will end up Siri operating through your vehicle's dashboard with all the same stops, starts, bugs, miscues and miscommunications that hurt the present Siri experience.

That said, I would be shocked if Siri is not greatly improved -- as in way more intelligent -- in this forthcoming iteration. Because, of course, we would expect nothing less from Apple, a company obsessively focused on details and perfection in execution.

So read the present article with this in mind and then color me prescient or flame me as an Apple hater. The truth likely sits somewhere in the middle. 

For more details on CarPlay, see Chris Ciaccia's Apple Want Its Piece Of the Connected Car

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- First things first ...

For the most part, I have nothing but good things to say about the Chevy Sonic from General Motors (GM).

The folks at GM were nice enough to let me borrow one so I could test Apple's (AAPL) Eyes-Free Siri.

I'm not much of a car guy, but for $20,000 -- give or take a few grand depending on model/options -- I'm confident enough in my feel for the driving experience to say the Sonic provides strong value. Frankly, when I looked at the car I wasn't expecting much. However, once I drove it, that changed. It's every bit as comfortable and feels just as powerful as my 2013 Toyota (TM) Prius (which I am also happy with).

That said, I have to question GM and, more so, Apple's decision to go nuts to the struts marketing Eyes-Free Siri on Winter Olympics (and other) broadcasts.

Surely, you've seen the television spot by now:

GM beat us to death with that thing during the Olympics. So much so I figured I had to drive a car equipped with Eyes-Free Siri. I needed to discover what all the commercially manufactured fuss was about.

My logic: If GM and Apple, assuming Apple has a say in these matters (read on, but remember that thought for the narrative conclusion on Page Two), decided to feature nothing other than Eyes-Free Siri on the Equinox commercial, it must be otherworldly good.

The reality: Going back to consistent use of Siri reminded me just how bad it can be. And Eyes-Free Siri is little more than a marketing ploy ... a name attached to functionality you can achieve in vehicles not officially outfitted with Eyes-Free Siri. In fact, this functionality, at times, works better in my Prius than it did the Sonic.

All of this leads me to argue (and reassert) that Tim Cook needs to fix two major problems at Apple:

Siri (obviously) and Apple's increasingly damaging external partnerships.

In fact, in a vignette of irony, GM's advertising drew me closer to dropping a couple bucks on another item that goes by "SIRI," Sirius XM (SIRI) Satellite Radio.

My Sonic was equipped with XM. That allowed me to listen to E Street Radio. Long ago, I subscribed almost solely for that station (and a little Howard Stern). Every time I was in the Sonic, I found myself drawn to the satellite radio option. In fact, the only reason why I continued to employ Eyes-Free Siri was for the purposes of this article.

At this juncture in Siri's development, it would have made more sense for GM (and saved Apple the embarrassment) to feature Sirius XM as an option and/or tout Pandora (P) functionally. Though, as I explain in this article, if you have an iPhone that experience falls meaningfully short.

Details on My Eyes-Free Siri Experience

Eyes-Free Siri in association with Chevy's MyLink in-car infotainment system, for the most part, performs only as well as Siri does. Because, as it functions, you are, for all intents and purposes, simply using Siri through your vehicle's dashboard. I have requests in to both Apple (not holding my breath) and Chevy (we'll see) to confirm, but from what I can ascertain the car doesn't control anything; it's all Siri. It's standard Bluetooth or USB link up with a fancy name. 

In other words, you can disconnect your iPhone from the car and do the same things with Siri as you can when it's connected. All you really get is the ability to be slightly more "eyes free" because you're able to ping Siri from your steering wheel, not your iPhone.  

Maybe that shouldn't come as surprise. Maybe that's what I should have anticipated all along. But, again, that commercial. It was playing in my dreams during the Olympics. As it ends up, the advertisement was tantamount to a movie where all the best parts surface in the trailer.

To activate Siri you press the little button with the face shouting below the phone receiver. But you have to press and hold it. If you just tap it, it brings the make a telephone call function up on your dash's touchscreen. (By the way, I made and took phone calls. Both worked just fine. Just like my Prius, which does not feature Eyes-Free Siri, at least not officially). After a couple seconds of pressure on the aforementioned button, Siri prompts you, the same way it does when you press and hold the home button on your iPhone.

*More images on Pages Three and Four 

Like the guy in the commercial, I had Siri read my messages to me. One time when I coughed during my verbal request for new messages, Siri told me she couldn't find any new messages from between January 1, 1970 and December 31, 1970.

I had Siri dictate text messages, set reminders, send Tweets and update my Facebook status. All the typical stuff that ends up getting done despite Siri misunderstanding after Siri misunderstanding. She has a habit of giving you the runaround before she'll complete even the simplest task.

Then I asked her to do the types of things I expected from in-car technology promoted incessantly during a major broadcast event.

I asked her to play my music. That worked. Siri fired up a shuffle of my iTunes collection. Again, standard Siri functionality whether you're going through your vehicle's dash or not.

But then I asked her to "open Pandora," something she can do for me when I tap the home button on my iPhone. That didn't work. In fact, even when the car wasn't completely turned on, Siri told me she couldn't do that for me while I was driving. Via Bluetooth, in my non Eyes-Free Siri Prius, I can open and close Pandora (and play it via Bluetooth) with zero trouble. One would think a vehicle that uses Eyes-Free Siri marketing would provide the same luxury. 

It's not Siri's fault, though. It's just that there's apparently some compatibility issue between Apple's iOS operating system and Chevy's MyLink.

For example, you cannot achieve full Pandora functionality (as in the Pandora platform with song title, album artwork, skip, thumbs up, thumbs down beamed to your car's touchscreen) via Bluetooth when you link the two platforms. You have to make a USB connection for that. Annoying, particularly if you don't want to charge your phone at something better than a low battery or you don't like the clumsy location of the USB port in the upper glove box on the passenger side.

And, in a curious twist, even with the USB connection, Siri won't open Pandora for you via MyLink. At least not in my experience. I had to manually open Pandora on my phone for MyLink to pull the platform up on the dash or even play it on the generic Bluetooth music screen. So a feature that touts not having to fiddle with your iPhone to do things effectively requires you to fiddle with your iPhone to access what is likely the most widely used app while driving and linking an iPhone to a motor vehicle dash. 

You would think Apple, assuming it still considers seemingly small, but, in practice, super important details, would get together with Chevy to find a fix for the issue. It's a first world problem, no doubt, but it's also something I reckon most people would expect to just work. And it becomes an even bigger expectation when you see Siri featured in Chevy advertising the way it has been.

See Pages Three and Four for images that show the way MyLink screens (and a recurring Pandora-related error message) appeared during my test run. 

I wish I could be more positive, but Chevy and Apple dropped the ball on this.

There's no way anybody should buy a car equipped with Eyes-Free Siri because of Eyes-Free Siri. After experiencing it, nobody would do such a thing. It's simply not a value add. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's a weak marketing ploy. And, in my experience, it doesn't feel like it makes using your smartphone while in the car any safer. Peeking at my steering wheel doesn't distract me any less -- physically, visually, cognitively -- than tapping the home button on my iPhone. And, heck, if I really want to I can mount my iPhone on the dash and make Siri even more "eyes-free" than it is when manipulated from the steering wheel. 

Simply stated, I can do everything I'm able to do with Eyes-Free Siri in a Chevy Sonic in my Prius via my iPhone's home button and a Bluetooth connection. I don't have the touchscreen dash version of the Prius so I'm not sure how Pandora functionality works. But, on the ground, it's pretty straightforward -- if your vehicle is equipped with a microphone and its entertainment system will accept a Bluetooth connection with an iPhone, you, too, for all intents and meaningful purposes, can have Eyes-Free Siri. It's just not called Eyes-Free Siri in the marketing because there's, presumably, no official agreement to make it so. 

The advertising turns out to be a royal waste of time and money, IMNSHO.

And it begs the question I have been asking for months now: Why in the world does Apple either cede so much control over its brand image or go along with the whims of its partners?

For goodness sake, you have Wal-Mart (WMT) running around discounting iPhones like they're cheap Chinese t-shirts. And pathetically desperate Best Buy (BBY) just can't seem to get enough of these lame $1 iPhone promotions. Now you have Apple contributing, on some level, to GM's abject waste of a promotional budget. 

Tim Cook blissfully hitches Apple on the thoughtless, uncritical and, over the long-term, brand-crushing ride.

Think about it -- Apple gave General Motors license to heavily market a feature that's not even close to ready for primetime in primetime. Siri has barely made marginal improvements over the last couple of years.

Even if only a few thousand people experience the underwhelming nature of Eyes-Free Siri (which is basically no different from regular old Siri in the car), there's no excuse.

Just like the body odor episode in Santa Monica -- in and of itself, this is not the end of the world. However, it does point to the very real possibility that Apple's not paying attention to detail the way we almost automatically think it does. That maybe Tim Cook isn't running as obsessive and tight of a ship as Steve Jobs did.

On Pages Three and Four, see images illustrating parts of the Eyes-Free Siri Chevy MyLink experience ... 

Sirius XM's E Street Radio was on when I first turned the ignition on my Sonic. And it's what I kept wanting to go back to despite the existence of Eyes-Free Siri.

Not to nitpick, but MyLink was slow to make the Bluetooth connection in the Sonic. In fact, it took upwards of ten seconds to do it most times. In my Prius it happens almost instantaneously -- in less than five seconds. And I was operating both vehicles from the same location. In fact, for a while they were parked, on the street, back to back in my neighborhood.

The frustrating error message that popped up quite frequently when I would try to load Pandora. Really there was no rhyme or reason as to whether Pandora would properly load or not. If it would come up with full functionality or a simple Bluetooth music screen. While driving, I certainly wasn't go to take on a safety risk and mess around with it to get it to work. I just went direct to my iPhone to solve the problem.


That's a screen capture from when my iTunes collection was playing. It's also the screen MyLink ended up using, quite often, to deliver Pandora.

And a glimpse of when everything came together and Pandora worked the way it should with a USB-connected iPhone synced to Chevy's MyLink.

--Written by Rocco Pendola in Santa Monica, Calif.

Disclosure: TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors, reporters and analysts from holding positions in any individual stocks. Rocco Pendola is a columnist for TheStreet. Whenever possible, Pendola uses hockey, Springsteen or Southern California references in his work. He lives in Santa Monica.

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