Here’s the VW iBeetle, a strange new collaboration between Volkswagen and Apple.

The integration comes in the form of an iPhone dock and custom-built app that lets drivers access all sorts of hands-free functionality, from playing music to checking engine diagnostics.

And yes, it’s really called the iBeetle.

But it leaves us with so many questions. Why would Apple, a company known for being fiercely protective of its brand, sign on to this undercooked final product?

Sure, cars need all the help they can get in the UI department, but Apple has its own Siri Eyes Free tech it’s been pushing on other auto makers. Why does VW get special treatment?

Co.Design

Why On Earth Would Apple Sign On To The Volkswagen iBeetle?

VW’s new ride is a perplexing addition to the iFamily.

The iTV. The iWatch. The iCar. All of these mythical products have been floated at some point on the Internet, where speculating wildly on future Apple products is a perennial pastime. Sadly, for all the bloviating, the world still waits for the Apple smartwatch and the Apple HDTV. But now the iCar has arrived, out of the blue. Sort of.

Last week, at the Shanghai Auto Show, VW debuted a new collaboration with Apple. It’s called the iBeetle. And it’s weird.

Here’s what we know. The iBeetle is a real-deal collaboration between Volkswagen and Apple. It’s slated for availability in early 2014, with pre-orders starting later this year.

We know that the main integration comes in the form of an iPhone docking station, which works with a specially designed app to give the driver voice-activated access to all sorts of smartphone features. Some are standard operations, like playing songs through Spotify or iTunes, hearing texts read aloud, and accessing diagnostic info for the car itself. Others are, well, less standard. The app’s Postcard feature, for example, will automatically send a friend a digital mailing with your iBeetle’s location.

We also know that the car’s really called the iBeetle. The name’s stamped on the running board.

Here’s what we don’t know: Why? Why would Apple, who already has partnerships with GM, Honda, BMW, and others to put its own Siri Eyes Free feature in cars, agree to this uncharacteristically half-baked collaboration? Yes, car manufacturers are in dire need of all the user experience help they can get—quick note to the automotive guys: When you’re trying to keep your eyes on the road, real knobs and buttons are about a thousand times safer and easier to use than fiddling with a touch screen—and it could be true that the auto industry’s best bet for pushing in-car UX into more sensible, sophisticated territory is these types of partnerships.

But still, this isn’t Apple revolutionizing the dashboard. It’s Apple letting Volkswagen stick an iPhone dock on top of it, and maybe giving them some feedback on their app along the way. Which raises the next question: Why would Apple, a company that’s nothing if not deliberate about its partnerships, and fiercely protective over its own image, let Volkswagen borrow its lowercase "i" and brand this as the iBeetle? What does Apple have to gain by letting an outside product into their close-knit, carefully polished iFamily?

It’s strange, and even though it’s become trite to say, it’s hard to imagine the late Mr. Jobs giving the whole thing his seal of approval (although, speaking of baffling partnerships, remember the pre-iPhone Motorola Rokr? Oof). At the very least, you’d think he’d have insisted that VW give the app a slightly snazzier name. The press release lists it as "Volkswagen Car Net The Beetle." I don’t get it either.

Read more about the iBeetle here.

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23 Comments

  • DigitalCourt

    This looks like a "partnership" gone wrong...

    Apple: Hi there good partner - we've got some great ideas to integrate iPhone into a car

    VW: Great - we'll call it iBeetle

    Apple: Here's what we've got (showing iOS in the car)

    VW: uhhh... You guys don't know how to build car systems we'll do it

    Apple: uhhh... OK... show us what you've got...

    VW: Here it is... (above)

    Apple: WTF? really? We're wiping our hands of this and releasing our awesome "iOS in the car" to 8 car manufacturers that actually want to build great cars. You do know you just passed on some great early exclusivity and made this frankenstein beetle dead on arrival?

    VW: We'll see... we have the "i" don't we

  • seanscottusa

    @rfy692 is on the right track... Think about Apple's biggest competitor: Google. Google has partnered with Toyota. That leaves GM and VW as the two next most obvious choices for an Apple partnership. VW announced the self-driving Audi A6/A7at this year's CES. Now is Apple's opportunity to partner with a company that can bring it some street cred in the auto business.

    My guess is that the iBeetle is cost of entry, like the ROKR was. They need to learn some stuff. They partner on the iBeetle, then get into new A6/A7 self-drivers. Maybe they work on their own car down the road. Maybe the partnership expands in other ways that benefit both companies.

  • Gerben

    "We also know that the car is really called the iBeetle. The name is stamped on the running board." There, I fixed it for you.

  • Pete Iorns

    If this is indeed an Apple sanctioned co-project then this could signify the post-Jobs downward slide. The iPhone and the new-Beetle? Really?

    We have Apple, which produces products that follow their own aesthetic and functional direction - true innovation;  and the Beetle, which is fundamentally a pastiche of a previous design. More specifically, a pastiche of an aesthetic that came from a previously function-led design (the original 1938+ car). The new-Beetle is an essentially cute, effeminate, fashion-led design accessory before it's a car. A well made car, but fairly ordinary in function and utility.

    The car is a fashion statement first, a car second. The iPhone is the opposite, a functional computer first and an accessory second.

    Wow, is this the new direction for Apple? Take a consumer fashion product, whack an iPhone on it and call it and call it innovation? This has to be a joke. Someone pinch me, am I awake?

  • Susanna Kirk

    I really like how you approach this question. But, I disagree with one point. I think it'll be interesting to watch this unfold because *both* brands have the quality of being "cute" and "fashion-led." While it's certainly true that a large proportion of iPhone's target market sees the phone as a "functional computer first and an accessory second," it's also true that iPhones have become brand-name fashion accessories for a significant group of users.

    When I suggested in my earlier comment that the brands have similar brand attributes, I was thinking specifically of the fact that both brands have a certain "Cute," "Creative," "Counter-culture" vibe, and attract brand adherents who want to identify themselves with these attributes. It is more true of the VW Beetle than of any other car I can think of (off the top of my head) that its value proposition comes chiefly from what it SIGNIFIES. As you say, it's completely ordinary in its functioning. But, people love it because it comes in a cute box with nice curves, and it communicates something about your values and sensibilities, if you drive one. 

    I don't mean to offend Apple fans by saying so, but I think that is also true of a considerable number of iPhone users. It's all about the *idea* that "I'm an Apple," as the ads used to say. I'm cute and fun and young and independent and creative, and I would never wear a sweater vest. 

    Ultimately, I think it's not surprising that these two brands would hook up, as a way of giving Apple a play space for trying out some new ideas. Everyone knows that in the world of ubiquitous computing, our cars are going to become "devices" sooner or later. So Apple has found a fitting brand space within which to experiment.

    Who knows if it'll sell, but what better place for Apple to play? 

  • Pete Iorns

     A point also worth noting relates to Road and Transport laws here in NZ.

    Reading the VW press release it seems the intent is to allow integration and control of not only the car functions but also social and media web streams (photo sharing, spotify, facebook) via intergrated apps. Full interaction. Whooppee. Full interaction while driving your car. On the highway.

    Current NZ law related to distracted driving allows you to touch your cell phone while driving only "briefly and infrequently". It is nice that Apple and VW would like us to fully socialise while driving but our law is there for good reason. Road safety.

    Maybe there'll be an instagram category: "Moments before crashing."

  • mediatico

    This reminds me so much to the MTV Renault Clio, which had nothing special, but the MTV logo, even the sound system wasn't something amazing. This might be useful for VW but for Apple.... I thought they've learned from the Motorola experience.

  • Marc

    I hope they make a better Siri integration in the regular Beetles available, too. It sucks that you can't get voice commands over the Bloothoth connected speaker system right now, when you punch in directions. Anybody at VW reading this?

  • rfy692

    Does anyone remember when Apple partnered with Motorola for that terrible music phone? Everyone was confused and then not long after the iPhone came out. Could this be a way for them to learn a bit about having their technology in cars with the vision of something much more substantial coming out down the road? 

  • Susanna Kirk

    It's certainly a good move for VW. Creating a brand relationship between the Beetle and Apple makes sense. They have similar brand attributes. The Beetle, which hasn't done anything innovative with its brand since it came out with those cars the color of Skittles, capitalizes on the market reach that Apple has developed with the iPhone, and unlike GM, Honda, BMW, etc... The VW Beetle would have almost nothing to lose by giving Apple a whole lot of creative oversight on the project. They're a fading brand.  I'll bet you they went to Apple and said, we'll do anything you suggest, within reason. You have full creative license. This can be your fun experiment. Why wouldn't Apple want to do an experiment like that? Google has smart cars zipping all over the place.. Apple's just trying to keep doing something new and forward thinking. It seems completely natural to me. 

  • Nick

     You say the Beetle is a fading brand, but US sales figures indicate that twice as many Beetles were sold in the first 4 months of 2013 than over all of 2011, and projected sales of 2013 should come out to around double of 2012. It's interesting what a model refresh can do.

    And it'd be presumptuous to suggest that VW group as an overall brand is fading. I won't go into details but:
    http://www.google.com/finance?...

  • bosco

    I don't see anything perplexing about it. It is unlikely to cost Apple any money if at all. Instead, there is a good likelihood to be a great revenue stream. It could even roll out to the rest of the VW product line. With knowing the exclusivity and since Apple has already had relationships with other car models, this may very well be the proof of concepts. So, instead of APP developers, you have automakers - excluding maybe the Koreans - as another branch of the ecosystem

    To say the least, companies pay good money to put moving bill board atop taxicab, and Apple essentially gets free advertisements

    A win-win-win all around

    disclaimer: I have no insider knowledge beyond what is said in this article

  • Monica

     All valid points - if we were talking about "companies." Sure, "companies" do this all the time. Apple doesn't. Since when does anything but a category-redefining product get to wear in i?

  • bosco

    @Diana, it could or it could appear to be a snob. So how to decide? Evidence. Mind you, Beetle itself is a cult brand

    Furthernore, there is a confusion about a brand and exclusivity. For instance, Apple has been selling A LOT of iPods and iPhones. You don't see it as an dilution. On the other hand, the lightning connection was a misstep. So lipstick on an animal will never make it any better

    More important, with due respect to @Kyle, he has not established any reason why Apple shouldn't think outside of the box, which is really its image. Why, iPod is not the first music player, so having Apple to attempt to tackle other people's failure, i.e., MOT's ROCKR, appears to be a greater dilution to me

  • bosco

    correction: replace " With knowing the exclusivity" with " Without knowing the exclusivity"

  • efm

    All very good points, a strange brand extension to say the least. And regarding touchscreen technology, I still miss the push buttons on BB.

  • Rcoop

    "real knobs and buttons are about a thousand times safer and easier to use than fiddling with a touchscreen." - Just went back to my flip phone since it was less complex and easier to make calls than my smartphone.

  • ncgh

     Camera makers have started leaning this lesson, returning to physical knobs and buttons at the same time that auto makers are going the wrong way.