Is the Apple Car the Next Lisa?

September 22, 2015 by Jennifer A. Diffley

The Apple Car will purportedly be in here in four years, but the foray into the automobile industry may be a misstep in the company's legacy.

The Apple Car is going to happen, but is that a good thing?

Rumors around Apple's foray into the automobile market have been fomenting for at least a year, ever since the tech giant began recruiting automotive experts as part of a secret experiment. For a while, the company insisted the sudden interest in automotive technology was due to its launch of CarPlay, the in-dash technology that essentially turns the features most cars previously had into a familiar iPhone-like format. 

But now, with the New York Times breaking the news, the Apple Car is virtually undeniable: it will be here in fewer than four years. 

One of many Apple unverified concept car drawings.

Ostensibly, the move into the auto market could be considered a natural progression: Apple, after all, has experience with batteries and sensors and the kind of complex software/hardware combinations that have made its products so famous. But in actuality, branching out into yet another arena hearkens back to the pre-Jobs days when Apple was known as "one of the worst-managed companies in the industry."

That mismanagement can be traced to its convoluted product options. Instead of focusing on the Mac and Apple II computers, Apple launched the Quadra, Centris, and Performa product lines with specifications so confusing and similar that both retailers and consumers couldn't tell the difference. And as for the Apple Lisa, it was supposed to "reinvent" the personal computer...but cost almost $10,000 and was such a miserable disaster that Apple offered to let customers trade them in for a steeply discounted Mac II. Apple then tried its hand at PDAs, releasing the Newton, which, though it paved the way for future devices, was so poorly received that Jobs trashed the project in 1998. And then there was the Pippin, which was Apple's doomed dip into the gaming world. 

The doomed Apple Lisa.

Though much was learned from its failed products in the late 1990's, Apple could have avoided the tremendous financial blows and brand recognition fallout by simply doing what it does best: specialization. 

Apple has essentially made its fortune off the iPhone, the iMac, and the iPod.  The reiteration of each product is an improvement on the device that came before. The last few years, however, have proved that Apple is hoping to get its hands into as many markets as it can, from televisions to cars, and now even styli. The company certainly has money to spare in its new endeavors, but a few missteps similar to its late-90's debacle can shake the trust of investors and the general public. 

There's another problem, too, and that's the sheer complexity of the automotive market. There are safety regulations, environmental regulations, anti-theft regulations, and a whole slew of performance requirements. It's nothing like producing a computer: these are machines that routinely kill drivers and pedestrians. And, while the iPhone-holding, Whole Foods-shopping, Prius-driving set would likely not think twice before buying an Apple-branded car, many consumers may have a difficult time transferring confidence in traditional automotive companies to a company known for its consumer electronics. 

It will be fascinating to see what Apple's contribution to the automotive market will be, but even more interesting to see how consumers react to it. And of course, knowing Apple, all that design will come at a specially-designed price.