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Why Do I Have to Pay Another $40 For A Car iPod Cable?

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Now that you've laid out $20,000, or $30,000--or even $100,000--for your new vehicle,you may be asking a touchy question of your salesperson: "Why the heck do I have to pay $40 more for a proprietary cable, just to run my iPod?"

Not surprisingly, it's pretty much the fault of Apple and its walled-garden philosophy.

The whole Apple universe of media products depends on various software licenses and hardware controls to prevent unauthorized distribution of music and video. In the rest of the known world, you're authorized to make copies of your own music for your own purposes. But in the Apple fanboy domain, you're only allowed some copies of some tracks under some circumstances, though digital-rights-management (DRM)-free music is becoming a bigger part of the company's future.

To get past Apple's licensing security measures--and to get the most in-car control over your iPod or iPhone using the USB cable that came with it--you have to show some digital proof that you're the licensed user.

With in-car audio, that boils down to Apple devices seeking out a specific "authentication IC (integrated circuit)" that's marketed to authorized partners. A car company can apply to become an Apple partner, and to get access to the hardware and software needed to enable all the iPod or iPhone functions users want.

Ford is an Apple partner; it buys a pre-assembled part from suppliers based on that license. That part is coupled to a USB port, which allows information to pass directly from the iPhone or iPod to the car. Then, users can steer the iPod or iPhone through playlists, skipping and repeating tracks and more through the car's audio controls.

A patchwork of solutions

If your new car comes from a company that hasn't signed up for an Apple license, the solutions can be a patchwork of cables and missing functionality. The simplest solution is an auxiliary jack, which transmits the audio signal alone to the car's audio system. Drivers must navigate the music and controls on the Apple device while changing volume and other settings on the car's controls. Hopefully, they're not doing it while driving.

A middle step allows users to plug in the standard Apple cable to an in-car USB port, while giving up some of the functionality. Users might be able to skip through tracks, for example, but may not be able to flip through playlists or choose music by genre. In a very few cases, the USB cable might allow all the data to pass through, while omitting the charging function--leaving drivers with a dead piece of electronics after a long drive, or worse, having to unplug and then plug in a separate charging cable for added juice.

Many companies like Kia and Hyundai use a prioprietary cable as a stopgap. This Kia cable uses the USB port to charge and deliver basic music information to pass through, while the auxiliary jack delivers the actual audio signal. Without the cable, the audio players won't work at all. Both Kia and Hyundai are said to be working with Apple to become authorized license holders, which could soon unlock the power of the familiar white USB cable to their cars without asking their drivers to pay extra.

Until then, the cable adds on cost after the $300 to $700 fact. The Kia cable shown here lists for about $49; German automakers are the worst on the scale, with BMW's iPod cable available on for $125.

if you're looking to place some blame, aim it at Cupertino. Apple puts a premium on its products and services, and it won't just let anybody in on its intellectual property. Smart automakers got ahead of the curve and recognized the iPod's ubiquity and are footing the cost to win customers. The rest are playing catch-up.

At the very least, the next time you shop for a new car, plan on checking the compatibility of your iPod--or plan on bringing another wad of cash to the dealer to make sure you're connected.

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Comments (12)
  1. Yep, Apple is to blame. I purchase an Ipod Video and then an adapter for my car ($150) that makes my Ipod Video look like a 6-disk CD changer. Worked great.
    Upgraded to Ipod touch, does not work at all. No audio, does not even charge.
    Love the Ipod Touch in many ways, but Apple is a sucky company to deal with.

  2. sorry that's not apple's fault ...the carmakers should be giving the cables away for free, they are the one's making the profit on the cables. the ipod connector hasn't changed in years, and it should be standard in most vehicles by now. that said if you want some sort of special mount, an extra $50-100 isn't gonna break the bank on a $30k car purchase.

  3. Why bother with an iPod when you can buy a $20 8GB USB stick and put 2,000 songs on it?

  4. bluetooth + iphone 4 = solved

  5. I researched this a couple years ago and got a neo ipod adapter that has flash upgrade so when apple has new protection or i get new car it just plugs into the back of the radio of the new car - seems like the best solution. picked mine up at a place called icarkits for 150 but im sure you can find it at lots of different places

  6. I agree with David. If you drink the Apple Koolaid, you have to pay the Apple price. You can buy a MP3 player that you don't have to worry about proprietary cables or DRM's and it will cost you a whole lot less than the iPod that has only become a status symbol. I work with teenagers everyday and what I have found is that the kids who are trying to be popular or accepted are the ones going out and buying MacBooks and new iPods and then talking about it to everyone so they will look important. Apple has done a good job of convincing everyone that their kung fu is better than all the other kung fu out there. It's ridiculous. Any anyway, why can't you just plug an audio cable into the stupid iPod and through the head unit in the car. Why do you need the proprietary cable to make it play music. Unless you are trying to control the iPod through your car stereo. But that's being lazy since the iPod is probably sitting in your lap or in the console next to you. BTW I don't care for Apple or it's products, if you couldn't tell.

  7. I'm bailing on waiting for my vehicle to have an iPod connector. BT Audio is the way to go.

  8. Apple got rid of the DRM on their music tracks almost 2 years ago. Everyone knows it was because of the labels anyways. Their overcharging third parties for car connection licenses is a separate issue, though certainly irritating. Clearly the author has a bone to pick; he should get his facts straight. There's no excuse for this coming from a "20 year veteran journalist".

  9. Don't blame Apple or car makers for DRM. Blame the music industry they are constantly forcing companies like Apple to add these stupid technologies that make our lives harder. If Apple did not have that stupid little chip there are several labels and artists that would not sell their music on iTunes.

  10. DRM isn't gone from iTunes. You can buy many tracks DRM free--but not all.

  11. Apple dropped DRM years ago.
    The proprietary connector is great because it charges your iPod and you can use steering controls, and artist etc. shows up on display. I haven't seen these features in other mp3 players.
    The connector sucks because you have to pay $100+, that's if you install it yourself. Then they come out with a new model iPod and the connector doesn't work anymore (mine won't work with iPod touch, even though the connector fits)

  12. Um, my Camaro just needs the little white cable that came with the ipod. Or I can just do what David said above and use a USB memory stick.

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