Friday, July 9, 2010

iDrive vs. Android Engine

I remember when Apple first announced the release of iDrive, the first car manufactured by Apple. I was sitting in the doctor's office when the news shifted from reports of civil rights abuses in Russia to the iDrive. The car sounded amazing. I didn't get it immediately, but all the Youtube videos showing off the great features had me putting my money down six months after the release.
The thing was slick. It had all the features that futurists have been saying a car would have one day for the last fifty years. When I approached the car it used biometrics to recognize me and automatic unlock and open the driver's door. When my wife approached the passenger door it did the same for her. I decided I'd visit my fellow grease-head friend to show off my latest purchase.
I simply spoke his name and it started driving itself to his house. The ride was real smooth. You could barely feel the turns or bumps when it went over bumpy roads. A couple miles down the road I grabbed the steering wheel, and put it in to manual mode. Once I took control I knew that this was what driving was always meant to be. I was in heaven.
I drove for a few more miles and then put it back in automatic. I wanted to see how it performed parking at my buddies house. To my amazement it pulled right up to his driveway and parallel parked, making sure not to be in the yellow-painted no-parking zone. It was simply amazing.
So I pulled my friend out of his house and showed off my new iDrive. We went for a spin around the neighborhood and he admitted the thing was as sweet as he had heard.
I asked him if he was planning on getting one. He kind of looked at me blankly and then asked me to pop the hood. When I did I was pretty taken back by what I saw. There was a huge metal covering over the engine. I thought I would just pop it off, but when I looked for a way to do it, I couldn't find any nut or bolts, or anything so I could remove it. I peeked on the underside and it was the same story. He pointed at the cover and said, "I can't bring myself to buy something with those ridiculous restrictions." I thought he was overreacting and brushed it off.
I figured that sooner or later I'd find out how to get that thing off and start digging around at the engine. Like my buddy, I'm a grease-head. I got my first car when I was 14, not even old enough to drive, and by the time I had a license in my hand, I had gone through every inch of that machine and had some sort of custom modification. I've done the same to every car I've owned ever since. I wasn't going to let some silly cover get in my way of finding out how this thing works and improving upon it.
When I got home I was on a mission. I was going to get that cover off by nightfall. I pulled the iDrive into my shop and pulled out all of my tools. I spent two hours without getting anywhere.
Frustrated, I pulled out my laptop and did a little Googling. First hit for "iDrive engine case" had instruction on how to get the thing open. The directions where poorly written, and the process was a little convoluted, but it seemed like it should work. There was one pretty big problem. At the top of the instruction the site anounced:
Warning: Cracking your iDrive could potentially void your car's warranty and insurance.
This had to be a joke. I went back to the Apple dealership and asked them about opening up the engine cover. They explained that removing the cover would not only void both my warranty and insurance, but it was illegal. I laughed in his face and drove home a little confused.
Some more research on the Internet confirmed the Apple representatives claims. In fact, it seemed to be a pretty big discussion on the Internet. Trolls and flame wars abounded in various chat rooms. When I asked about it on the iDrive IRC channel, the simply asking of the questions seemed to warrant some pretty emotionally charged statements from some people. I didn't think simply asking the question would get me attacked.
It turned out to be even worse. Not only could I not get to my engine, but nobody else was allowed to either, unless they where a certified Apple technician. I am a grease head, but I also have a mechanic who has been working on my cars for the last fifteen years. Between my personal and professional life I don't always have the time to fix stuff when it breaks. My mechanic has shown me that he can be trusted and does excellent work. Ever since I've found him I've never taken my car to anyone else. The idea that I would be forced to go to some stranger was absurd.
Online there seemed to be a lot of apologizers out there, supporting Apples policies. They argued that Apple was simply ensuring a quality experience. The average person doesn't care how their car work, they just want it to run. By only allowing repairs from certified technicians Apple could guarantee their customers didn't just take it to Joe mechanic and get screwed over. (Incidentally, my mechanics name is Joe.)
As if this wasn't enough, I also could only accessorize my car with products that Apple has licensed. The cigarette lighter was even shaped differently, so none of my devices that would plug into a cigarette lighter would work in my car. The gas intake was different too. I noticed that many of the gas stations advertised that they sold 'Apple Go', which simply meant they had pumps that would fit in an iDrive. It seemed that none of my standard car stuff worked in my iDrive. The only way to even get music was synchronize it with your iTunes library.
Of course, the Apple stores carried all the accessories that did work, but I wasn't really looking forward to replacing all the stuff I already owned.
Even if your iDrive broke down, and you where going to take it to an Apple certified technician for repairs, you also had to get an Apple certified wrecker to come tow it.
The outrage seemed obvious to me. Here I was with an otherwise fantastic machine, but it had all of these artificial barriers placed on it. The stated line was to "ensure the customer experience", but it seemed to me that it was just a way to funnel all the money through Apple. Other people got it, but it seemed limited to other car geeks like me. And even within our group there was a pretty strong fan-based who seemed to not care that their freedoms had been all but removed from their car.
Stuck with the car I figured I would make the most of it. I did purchase some extra accessories from Apple, and a few other certified vendors. They where all pretty amazing. One shaved my face for me on the way to work. Another would show me meta-data about my surroundings, overlaying 3D information about points of interest on the windows. Google came out with an application that would detect traffic problems and reroute you, but Apple rejected it.
A year and a half later, back at the doctor's office, the news reported on Google's new Android engine, just after discussing reports of improvements in the rights for Russian citizens. It was an engine built collaboratively with other manufacturers as a competitor to the iDrive. The computer in the engine would be based off the Linux kernel. A year after that Volvo released the first vehicle with the Android engine. The reviews online gave it high marks, but many where saying it still didn't compare in quality to the iDrive.
Finally a car called the Droid-Z was released. A soon as I test drove the thing I knew it was time to ditch the iDrive. I sold it on e-bay and immediately picked up my Droid-Z. The default features that is shipped with where absolutely on par, or better, than the iDrive.
Pumped, I drove to my buddies house again. The first thing I did when he came out is pop open my hood. The engine was still covered, but was being held down by eight nuts, which easily came off. We immediately started hunting down all of the pieces and parts, figuring out what did what. We drove it around again and fell in love with the experience of the Droid-Z.
When I got home I went back out to the garage and dusted off all my old accessories. Everything in the Droid-Z was standard and all my old gear had a use again. I was in heaven.
When I talk to others about why they should get and Android powered vehicle they don't usually understand what I'm getting out. It seems the average person doesn't see the benefit of being able to buy any standard part, or take their vehicle to any mechanic they choose. They don't see the outrage in being legally prohibited to getting to their engine. They don't realize what a sad future the iDrive, now the iDrive 3, represents for the automotive industry. And the worst part is seeing my fellow grease-head friends fall into the trap.