Apple Computer Inc.'s designers take a lot of pride in the distinctive, clean look of their iPod MP3 players.
Automakers and their suppliers take pride in creating a harmonious vehicle interior offering comfort and safety for drivers and passengers.
Put those two elements together, though, and you'll most likely end up with a jumble of wires and connectors jammed into any available space.
``It's the worst combination of things from our perspective,'' said Bob Borchers, senior director of iPod auto integration for Apple. ``You end up with the cassette adapter cord going down to the cigarette lighter adapter, going down to the iPod, which is precariously perched in the middle of the [dashboard].''
Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple is taking the compatibility issue so seriously, it has dispatched Borchers to work with carmakers specifically to help find solutions that will make the world's most popular MP3 player work well in passenger vehicles.
``We spend all this time on packaging and consumer interface, and then you see this,'' Borchers told auto industry specialists during a May presentation in Detroit. ``And all of you, of course, are thinking that you spent all this time on the interior and we end up like that.
``We can do better. We want the best experience for our customers and for your customers.''
Apple is not out to force its way into the car business, Borchers is quick to clarify. It just wants to make sure its products operate at their best.
``We believe if our customers have a great experience with our product across the board - in their car or in their home - they'll come back to Apple for other products,'' he said. ``Besides offending our delicate design sensibility, it's also a good opportunity for us to reach out. We believe there are much better solutions that are available.''
And those solutions will require renewed emphasis on coordinating vehicle interior design, electronic connections, wire housings and LED displays - all of them heavily reliant on plastics - and make it all work seamlessly for the final customer.
``That is a major issue,'' said Hans-Gerd Krekels, vice president of product and innovation management for Siemens VDO Automotive AG's infotainment solutions.
``Simplification means there is a lot of working going on behind [the surface]. You have to have intelligent ways to package it, to integrate several things.
``The simpler the design on the outside, the more complicated it is behind,'' Krekels said.
There is more than aesthetics at stake. Coordinating digital music systems smoothly into cars makes it less likely that drivers will be distracted. They can use standard switches and controls in the car to control their music, rather than taking their eyes off the road to fiddle with a small player on an instrument panel or tossed onto a seat. In a fully integrated system, the controls on the iPod are locked out in favor of the main controls, Borchers noted.
``We're driving toward simplification,'' he said. ``We're driving toward as few buttons as possible.''
The iPod is just the most visible change in consumer electronics affecting the auto industry.
Since its debut on the market, Apple has sold about 16 million of the music devices, Borchers said. As of March, Apple had 76 percent of the total market share for MP3 players, and its own research shows 67 percent of iPod owners listen to them in their cars.
People want to listen to their own music. It is the same desire that drove the installation of everything from 8-track tape players to compact disc players in cars. But with a completely mobile system like MP3 players, the desire for portability is even bigger, said Don Montroy, a market analyst with auto consulting group CSM Worldwide, based in Grand Rapids, Mich.
``They want to be able to listen to it in their car, in their wife's car, in a rental car,'' he said.
The auto industry is just beginning to catch up, though. Germany's BMW AG launched the first integrated system for its cars and the iPod in 2004. The BMW system allows users to hook their player in through their car stereo via a connector in the glove box that also charges the iPod.
DaimlerChrysler AG's Mercedes brand raised the integration bar this year by allowing users not only to play their music through the in-car system, but also to control it through standard stereo controls on the dash and steering wheel. Users even can display their iPod song information on the instrument cluster.
The integration works through the 30-pin connector on the bottom of every iPod and iPod Mini. That connection will continue to exist so the auto industry has a specific standard to design its systems around.
We're not interested in making money from the automotive value chain,'' Borchers said. ``We have no desire to become an auto supplier. I've talked to too many people about auto suppliers to know that this is not a business we want to get into.
``What we really do want is to provide - both now and in the future - the best experience for our customers and your customers for digital music wherever they are.''
But suppliers already are looking at taking the concept even further.
Siemens VDO is concentrating on using Bluetooth, a wireless connection being built into many consumer electronics and cell phones, to widen potential entertainment links in the car. While Borchers' team considers Bluetooth as not ready yet to handle the iPod and other music systems, it is a standard across multiple electronic components, Krekels said.
In Europe, mobile telephones increasingly are being given the capability to store digital music, Krekels noted. Regensburg, Germany-based Siemens VDO can link a variety of telephones to the auto entertainment system through Bluetooth, and even upgrade the software within the stereo players so they can adapt more quickly, he said.
The fact is, the auto industry - which takes three years or more to create a new car - and consumer electronics, where six months between upgrades is long-term, need a better link.
``Long term, it's got to be wireless,'' Montroy agreed.
Siemens' long-term view takes a wider look at mobile entertainment. It is developing a system called ``content-based multimedia'' that lets drivers order their stereo to look for work by a certain artist or style of music and play it back through the speakers. The computerized search engine then will draw from digital music storage systems on telephones and MP3 players, through CDs and even satellite radio stations in search of that music.
``We have to get to a common architecture, so it can all interact,'' he said.