Apple Battles With Android-Centric MirrorLink For Control Of Connected Car

Apple Battles With Android-Centric MirrorLink For Control Of Connected Car

Summary: There are two cross-vendor efforts to defragment the car computer space and appify your automobile. With the outcome uncertain, developers remain in limbo.


Android often gets criticized for fragmentation. But the connected car market has it beat by a mile, with literally dozens of competing telematics platforms, each with its own code and quirks for developers to wrestle with.

At the Charged: Electric Vehicle Symposium Silicon Valley held last week on SAP's Palo Alto campus, I learned a few things which left me unoptimistic that things are changing anytime soon.

The good news: carmakers are eager to garner more apps. You have Nissan, which is introducing the 8th generation of its NissanConnect system that includes integration with Google local search and Pandora music. Or BMW, which is working with developers on 100 apps today for its car computing platform. And there's even this juicy rumor about Tesla Motors and the telematics system in its Model S Sedan that I heard from a source at a rival electric car maker.



Credit: Shutterstock.com

Usually, as a particular market matures, platforms tend to consolidate around a few winners. That creates scale and helps enable the hockey-stick-like growth of ecosystems that we're witnessing today around iOS, Android and, potentially, Windows 8.

That sort of consolidation isn't happening with cars. If anything, the number of platforms is continuing to expand, as automakers continue to create different platforms for different models.

"We're really at the ground floor," said Kal Mos, senior engineering director at Mercedes-Benz Research & Development North America. "I'd compare it to the early years of the PC and the Internet."

 For would-be developers, that means extra work and less potential revenue. Would you rather invest your time building an app with, at best, several hundred thousand potential customers, or several hundred million?

Conflicting Efforts To Unify Market

As I've noted, the way to create scale and attract developers would be for carmakers to de-emphasize their own platforms in favor of established mobile ones. 

Indeed, there are two main new efforts to do just that.

(Some commentators below brought up QNX Car, which is used as an underlying platform by a number of carmakers. QNX is for in-car head units, not for mobile-car integration, though the latest version does allow mirroring of mobile devices. Also, QNX, as BlackBerry PlayBook owners know, doesn't have a deep base of apps today like iOS or Android.) 

The first is led by Apple, which wants to integrate its iOS devices more deeply into the existing computers of each automaker. The 'Eyes Free' technology would allow drivers to control apps via Apple's Siri voice-recognition feature, or via steering wheel dashboards.

Apple usually keeps all news close to the vest, including partnerships. Here is a rare example of it appearing to do the opposite. According to Fast Company:

At WWDC, Forstall promised that "a number of auto manufacturers have already committed to delivering eyes-free Siri integration in the next 12 months." Yet of all of the automakers that Apple featured (Mercedes, BMW, GM, Land Rover, Jaguar, Audi, Toyota, Chrysler, Honda), just a few could confirm they were indeed working on delivering the technology within that timeframe. One automaker even seemed unaware that Apple had held an announcement.

"We haven't seen the statements attributed to Apple and we have nothing to announce at this time," a Chrysler spokesperson said by email. When pressed, the spokesperson would only add that "Chrysler does not comment on future product plans." 

The second effort is a technical framework called MirrorLink that would define how smartphone and tablet apps are displayed and controlled via an in-car touchscreen. Created by the Car Connectivity Consortium, MirrorLink is backed by 75 companies that represent 70% of the car market and 60% of the smartphone market (including major Android makers Samsung, HTC and LG).

MirrorLink's interoperable standard would make it easier and faster for mobile developers to write car-friendly apps. The Samsung Galaxy S III isNokia had the first mobile device to support MirrorLink (followed by Samsung with its Galaxy S III), while Sony has released five MirrorLink-compatible car audio head units.

The problem is that there are key holdouts, including major carmakers like Nissan ("we're not on the Consortium at this point, though we're keeping an eye on it," said Koji Doda, research and partner manager for Nissan North America), mobile platform vendors like Google and Microsoft and the biggest holdout of all, Apple.

Too Much Empowerment?

On a technical level, one source claimed there are two potential negatives with MirrorLink: its Android-centricity (despite Google's lack of official involvement with MirrorLink), and the narrow bandwidth channel defined by MirrorLink between device and car screen, which could hurt multimedia apps.  

Even carmakers that are officially supporting MirrorLink express ambivalence over ceding control to mobile devices and potentially degrading its brand.

Car makers "have to take responsibility for everything that appears on the car," explained Alex Keros, manager for advanced vehicle and infrastructure policy at General Motors Corp. 

Others are ambivalent about MirrorLink because it hampers their ability to innovate.

"Often times it's the slowest party that gets to define the spec," said another source, who also decried the resulting reliance on fragile mobile devices.

"If you're in Los Angeles and leave your smartphone in your car on a sunny day and come back, see what works: [the car computer] or the smartphone," he said.

It appears that most carmakers, including Mercedes-Benz, which is a leading backer of MirrorLink, plan to continue to hedge their bets. That means investing in both their own car platforms as well as augmenting integration with, while maintaining control over, smartphone apps.

No wonder that even developers like Barney Pell, CEO of parking payment app QuickPay, thinks it will take 5 to 7 years before these apps are truly integrated into cars in meaningful way. For mainstream mobile developers, that means one less market to write for in the near-term.


Are you an executive in operations, field service, supply chain management, engineering or manufacturing who wants to make his remote and mobile workers more productive? Then consider joining SAP and IBM on September 6th, as they host a luncheon at Fleming's Steakhouse at nine cities in the East and South of the United States. Check out if they are coming to your town.



Topics: ÜberTech, Apps, Legal, Mobile OS, Software Development

Eric Lai

About Eric Lai

I have tracked technology for more than 15 years, as an award-winning journalist and now as in-house thought leader on the mobile enterprise for SAP. Follow me here at ÜberMobile as well as my even less-filtered musings on Twitter @ericylai

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  • So basically the options are

    Siri/iOS friendly system (with apparently other features that could be considered standard)

    or a halfazz / half-backed framework that nobody likes.

    To me sounds like : NEITHER

    Don't we have enough deaths every day due to idiots texting while driving? Imagine how many more deaths we are going to have when you hookup a mobile device directly to the vehicle's dashboard.

    If the idiots were the only ones dying ..... but plenty of innocent bystanders are killed daily due to the complete lack of care of inconsiderate people.
    • Article is way out in left field

      RIM (QNX) and Microsoft (Sync) own this market:

      • Ford Sync, powered by MS of course ;-)

        Microsoft kind of flubbed this up with branding.
        • Since you insist

          • I put QNX(RIM/BlackBerry) first for a reason

            They are way out in front and guess which OS is used for LASIK, air traffic control, etc? Not Linux, not Android, not iOS nor Windows CE:

          • I was trying to back up your "flubbed" claim

            I agree that QNX is the king .... but I still don't think that connecting a mobile device to the dashboard is a good idea.

            We don't need any more accidents caused by unnecessary distractions. Do you really need to stay connected to Twitter and Facebook while driving? Do you really need access to your email while driving? Is that txt conversation more important than the life of a cyclist happily riding his bicycle (in the designated bike lane) a mile ahead??
          • Oic, yeah, I'm all for less crashes.

            People around here crash so much it's ludicrous.

            Almost got hit again, by a driver backing out without looking.
          • I see QNX as too much of an enabler

            @sagec Thanks for pointing out QNX - I've added a paragraph about them, and I have blogged before that QNX has an estimated 50% share of the car head-unit market today.


            The problem for me is that QNX is more about maintaining the status quo and helping car makers continue to create semi-divergent platforms (even if QNX is underlying), rather than integrating more with the mobile device, as MirrorLink or Eyes Free would, which I believe would grow the market faster and be more effective at bringing in more apps and developers.
            Eric Lai
        • yeah

          Sync is horrible! Talk about a bad feature! Good thing it doesn't control the whole car huh?
    • Symptom of the problem

      Boredom is the problem, texting is the symptom:


      Need to keep people focused on the road, intelligently!
  • Do research plz

    "Samsung Galaxy S III is the first mobile device to support MirrorLink" where u get these information from Eric ?? heard of Nokia ?? they had Mirror link support way before samsung . do some research plz (retraction)
    • Thanks for heads-up

      @infinity_29 - I've corrected the text above, cheers.
      Eric Lai