NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- At first, it might appear that Apple's (AAPL) move into the auto industry is a modest adventure. After all, there are only 15 million new cars sold all over the world each year, and CarPlay will be on only a portion of those. In addition, it's easy to get distracted by concerns about Siri's robustness combined with concerns about driver focus and safety.
History has shown that the early diagnosis of a new technology is almost always off the mark in the long run. That's because observers tend to cast a new technology in the perspective of old thinking. Because innovation is a new way of seeing things -- in essence discovery -- the famous quote from Albert Szent-Gyorgyi applies:
Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody else has thought.
When Microsoft's (MSFT) Steve Ballmer was asked early on about the prospects of Apple's new iPhone, his initial off-the-cuff criticism was that it didn't have a physical keyboard, wouldn't be good for email and therefore would not be popular with business people. Years later, with better perspective, Ballmer admitted that Microsoft didn't get on the mobility bandwagon soon enough by mimicking Apple.
I cite this example because it's memorable and a good way to illustrate that it's hard even for an experienced CEO to correctly assess a competitor's new technology.
Harder still is the challenge to put the long-term strategic consequences into perspective. For example, it's all too easy to think in a simplistic way about device handling in the car. At first we had an iPhone in our hands or stuck on the dash. With CarPlay, there is better integration, but not in an earthshaking manner. So CarPlay may seem like a yawner. It's not the startling new innovation, virtual magic, that some have been clamoring for.
It's been noted elsewhere, however, that innovation isn't always a surprising new technology. Sometimes, innovation is the incremental extension of current technology in news ways. Moreover, placing Apple technologies like Siri and Maps in front of average users is going to provide mission-critical feedback that will drive the technologies to the next level of refinement.
Technology is never frozen in time.
The working environment of the car, its speed, hazards from other cars and objects, and the sophistication of the environment is at least an order of magnitude greater than sitting in an armchair with an iPad. While that's alarming at first, it's also a challenge which, if met correctly, will advance the general iOS state of the art.
Cars are evolving rapidly now, and this is a good time to get in on the action. Plus, it goes without saying that Apple now has the opportunity to challenge Google (GOOG) (and Google Maps) in a very direct way. That's strategic.
And Apple knows how to appeal to partners who respect Apple's innovation, attention to security and tradition of taking ownership of advanced technology in a very human-centric way. Recently, I wrote about how Apple is challenging Android in enterprise -- where Android has weaknesses. All things considered, it's not surprising that middle to high-end car makers who cater to demanding customers have also chosen to go with Apple.
Finally, it won't be long before cars have some serious safety features that will help overcome driver distractions. Further down the road, cars will be driving themselves thanks to sophisticated sensors and GPS. To criticize CarPlay as a distraction now neglects to foresee a future in which we're sitting back and enjoying the ride while the car takes us to our destination. Apple wants to be a part of that environment -- the ultimate mobility experience. At least on the ground.
We tend to look at a new technology with old eyes. Right now, the technical developments and strategic value of an Apple interface in the car for the long term is easy to overlook, while limitations and dangers get full attention. To do that is to underestimate both Apple and ourselves.
At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.
This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.