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.
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.
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