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Car mode? Why isn't there an app for that?

HTC recently launched its flagship One X smartphone, and in it is an app aptly titled “Car”.

HTC/HTC

The smartphone has become akin to having another passenger in the car.

You talk to it, some models talk back, the number of apps is ever increasing and the way these devices integrate into factory and aftermarket systems, smartphones have become arbiters of infotainment.

With all that in practice, shouldn't they come equipped with "car modes" that change the input model while driving?

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HTC recently launched its flagship One X smartphone, and in it is an app aptly titled "Car". When enabled, the app orients in landscape and offers up four large icons of the basic apps you would need for the road — phone, navigation, music and Internet radio.

HTC's move to do this was actually preceded by a few others. In February, Samsung announced that it was collaborating with Toyota on a car mode for its phones that would merge seamlessly with the latter's infotainment system. Nokia's also offers a car mode for some of its smartphones, though not the most recent Windows Phone handsets.

But most smartphone manufacturers have made half-hearted attempts. Apple's App Store and Google Play (formerly Android Market) have an assortment of third-party apps that offer car mode functions, such as interfaces with bigger onscreen buttons, disabling screen lock and even bringing in unrelated apps that might be relevant to an in-car experience.

Some of these are good ideas in theory, but rudimentary in practice. Even what's currently offered by the likes of HTC and Samsung isn't extensive, they're just aiming for convenience. And even if they were more elaborate, would the big phone makers promote them?

Hands-free laws across Canada prohibit handling a phone while driving. Enforcement has varied as drivers nationwide still talk and text, but would they keep fiddling with their phones if everything they needed was accessible and navigable through a few simple gestures or voice commands?

Where the aftermarket would usually step ahead of auto makers to offer solutions to inherent needs like that, the answers have thus far been underwhelming. Some products do one or two things well, but they can't offer a wider experience that covers more bases. Phone mounting is still arguably a niche for most drivers. Rather than mount it on the windshield or use an in-dash install, people are probably perfectly fine with just laying it down somewhere.

In fairness, venturing into the "car mode" side of things is a new entry point for smartphone makers. Even Apple, with all its proprietary software, has absolutely nothing designed specifically for safe driving. They let third-party developers handle that, but at least if Apple created a car mode API, developers could create apps based on a foundation or template, much like they do now with everything else in the App Store.

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Perhaps it's easier to just train people to not use their phones at all while driving, but that's difficult at the best of times. Maybe car modes could be an effective way to use the technology they crave behind the wheel as a way to keep them in check.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

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