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Does anything less than an Apple Car even make sense?

Historically, the company has believed in making the whole device, not just the software.

2014 Geneva Motor Show Harold Cunningham / Getty Images

If Apple gets into the auto business and makes anything less than the whole car, it would be a decided departure from how it has done things in the past.

Cue up any video of Steve Jobs or Jony Ive and you will hear all the many virtues of integrating both software and hardware. Apple’s history has borne that out, from the Apple II, to the Mac, to the iPod, iPhone and iPad, Apple has always made the whole enchilada.

So, while it is not surprising that Apple might be scaling back its car ambitions, a report from Bloomberg that Apple might develop part of a car system, like the self-driving mechanism, and license it to others raises more than a few eyebrows.

First, let’s look at the handful of times Apple has done less than a whole thing, or licensed its software or hardware to rivals. Only three major examples leap to mind in Apple’s 30-plus year history.

  • Mac clones: When he returned to Apple, Steve Jobs immediately killed off Apple’s short-lived effort licensing the Mac OS to a couple of other hardware makers. Since then, the company has steadfastly refused to license its operating systems.
  • Moto Rockr: Apple worked briefly with Motorola to bring a dramatically scaled-back version of iTunes onto a mobile phone. It basically just bore the iTunes name and was crippled from the start. The product went nowhere. Even at its 2005 launch event, the Rockr was overshadowed by Apple’s iPod Nano.
  • The iPod by HP: This really ended up being nothing more than Apple letting HP sell Apple’s iPod. When first shown off at CES by then-HP CEO Carly Fiorina, it at least appeared that the iPod would come in HP’s signature blue color, but in the end all HP got was a logo on the back. Apple got a distribution channel for the iPod and got iTunes onto all of HP’s consumer PCs.

Then there is also the fact that few automakers appear interested in helping either Apple or Google make inroads into their core business. Ford CEO Mark Fields has been outspoken about the dangers of the auto industry turning into something akin to the cellphone business, where car companies do the heavy lifting and more and more of the value goes to companies like Apple and Google.

Even if Apple were to decide to move away from its traditional methods of producing both the software and hardware of its products and license its technology, it’s unclear what the market for that would be. It’s unlikely automakers would be willing to forgo their own self-driving software efforts in favor of integrating Apple software. Many even fought the integration of both Apple and Google’s infotainment systems until it became clear the companies could not replicate the mobile experience users were seeking.

Sources say Apple has talked to many, many auto companies, focusing most heavily on luxury carmakers with whom it sees itself as having a more natural affinity. But few automakers are willing to relinquish their brand and become the Foxconn of cars.

What seems more likely is that Apple is hunkering down, continuing to invest some in car technology, while seeing how things evolve and whether it really has the opportunity — and skills — to bring a product to market.

For now, Apple’s public automotive efforts remain focused on CarPlay, which uses an iPhone to power the in-car navigation and entertainment system display. Nearly all the work for that is actually done on the iPhone, with the car system sending touch and button-press information back to the phone for processing.

Additional reporting by Johana Bhuiyan.

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