Years ago, many of us reached a tipping point -- a point at which we spent so much time in front of electronic gizmos that we became frustrated with objects that weren't computerized. (Has anyone else instinctively hit an imaginary CRTL-Z after spilling a cup of coffee? Thought so.)
Then, we hit another moment, when we expected everything to be networked. "I don't want a paper receipt for my Big Mac. Can't you just send it to my phone?"
Now, we've moved to a third stage, in which many of us expect our environments to be not only computerized and networked, but also personalized.
Netflix reached this stage yesterday, when it announced the rollout of multiple profiles for Netflix accounts. Soon, no matter where you log in to the service, you'll be able to access your queue and your recommendations, uncluttered by all those Pauly Shore and Chris Kattan movies that your brother loves.
In the not-so-distant future, this same degree of personalization could come to cars, courtesy of Apple.
According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Apple has filed a patent for "Automatic configuration of self-configurable environments". In babble-filled legalese that would make your third-grade English teacher roll over in her grave (may she rest in peace), the patent application describes "techniques and systems for storing configuration details on a portable consumer device and communicating those configuration details to a self configurable environment to enable the self configurable environment to configure itself".
The gist is that you, the driver, would carry details about your preferred driving environment on your smartphone (presumably, an iPhone). Those details might include how you like the side- and rear-view mirrors adjusted, the pre-set radio stations, the angle of the steering wheel, the temperature of the cabin -- basically, anything you can personalize.
In practical, everyday terms, that means that every time you slide into the driver's seat of your family vehicle, the car will immediately adapt itself to your personal preferences.
Of course, there are already a number of cars on the market -- generally luxury vehicles -- that can remember preferences for each person who drives the vehicle. What Apple describes is different, though, because these preferences would follow you wherever you go, whatever you drive.
Say you're out on the town with friends, and you're the designated driver of someone else's car. The moment you get in and crack open an app on your iPhone, the car shifts to make things more comfortable and familiar. The same thing happens when you rent a car, or when you trade in your old vehicle for a new one. The way the process is described, it's a little like syncing a new iPhone: you may have a completely different phone in your pocket, but once you've synced up, the interface looks as familiar as the one you've been using for months.
Of course, for a system like this to take off, Apple will either need to (a) ensure that its new dashboard technology gets placed in all new vehicles, or (b) partner with automakers so that, at the very least, this personalization app (or whatever it is) interfaces with in-dash systems on a wide range of vehicles.
We're not the betting type, but if we were, we'd put our money on the latter. For reasons that we don't yet fully understand, automakers continue working on their own infotainment systems and app environments. As misguided as that may be, those systems are profit centers for car companies because they're usually offered as "upgrades", and in the auto industry, "upgrade" can also be spelled "M-O-N-E-Y".
The only questions are:
1. How long will it be before automakers design similar apps and systems to encourage brand loyalty? ("Buy another [insert marque here], and within seconds, it'll be just as comfortable as your old one!")
2. How will they do that without raising the ire of Apple's notoriously twitchy patent lawyers?
We'll keep you posted.