Asking for automotive smartphone integration as an optional extra

Asking for automotive smartphone integration as an optional extra

Summary: The coming together of car dashboards and smartphone apps is nearing, but it is not going to be as intimate as many hope.

TOPICS: Mobility, Android, Apple

If you are salivating at the prospect of one day buying a car that has a dashboard running an embedded version of iOS, then you'll be waiting for an awful long time for that prospect to appear.

The reason for this is simple: Focus.

Why would, or should, Apple look towards developing another version of its iOS operating system stack when there already exists a way to get iOS apps onto a dashboard using another powerful, proper, real-time operating system?

You could almost hear the faux crescendo of internet hysteria run amok when BlackBerry blog n4bb worked out that Apple's new Carplay system was running on top of the BlackBerry-owned QNX system.

This arrangement actually makes a lot of sense. It keeps Apple out of the automotive software development game, an area that would take the company some development to pursue properly, and keep focus on producing the iOS software and hardware products that it sells in the order of hundreds of millions each year.

By comparison, as John Morris explained, within the United States last year, only 15.6 million cars were sold and a fraction of them would likely have arrived bearing high-end dashboard software.

Add into this equation the long shelf life of automotive software, and the extended lead-in times for the design of a vehicle, and it makes a lot of sense to have additional functionality arrive via another device, and a device that is going to be a number of iterations more powerful than the silicon found within the car itself.

It therefore should not be any surprise that Apple chose to have CarPlay run on top of the platform that QNX built.

Folks wanting to be able to start their car each morning and have a smartphone operating system should ponder the idea of a vehicle running on a platform graced by the user interface, reliability, and stylings of Samsung.

The software running inside cars needs to be incredibly resilient to any potentially out-of-bounds or insecure action performed in userspace — as a real-time microkernel implementation done well, QNX fits this bill.

While Apple's CarPlay has yet to arrive for purchase, there are two other methods for smartphone usage in cars that are available today.

The first is Mirrorlink, a consortium that includes many mobile phone makers and automotive manufacturers, which provides the same functionality that CarPlay is offering for particular Symbian and Android handsets.

The second is Ford's Sync and MyFord Touch platforms developed in partnership with Microsoft.

For developers expecting a new gold rush in car-focused apps, that scenario is unlikely to happen without a great deal of luck.

What all three of these platforms have in common is the use of approved apps: Apple appears to have a enclosed CarPlay in a walled garden, and has yet to open up its ecosystem to developers; while both Mirrorlink and Sync offer third-party developers the ability to develop apps, any existing app will likely need modification to pass driver distraction testing, and all apps must be approved for use within vehicles before either platform will host them in its app store.

In November, I attended a Ford automotive app hackathon, and, as I wrote at the time: "The overwhelming feeling was how much better every app's user experience could be with a couple more features added to Sync."

While it was easy for app developers to add Sync functionality into apps, the user interface on the Sync unit, and the fact that the display was a couple of mere lines of text and not a touchscreen, detracted from its usage. Although big changes were promised, the next iteration of Sync has issues, and Ford is reportedly looking to jump onto QNX.

While its time may be up, one thing that Sync got right was the usage of wireless connectivity. CarPlay is arriving with a lightning dock for iPhones, and MirrorLink requires a micro-USB cable. Neither of these approaches are optimal, since they lock out the other major mobile ecosystem; to my mind, it would be much more preferable to have a wireless connection that supported all devices.

As mentioned earlier, the useful life of a car is far longer than that for mobile devices. The prospect in the near future that car buyers may need to make purchasing decisions based on what phone ecosystem they have bought into is not one that should fill anyone with joy.

By attempting to lock in phone and car ecosystems, mobile phone vendors are looking to nail down consumers for a number of mobile phone iterations, and ask them to predict that they will be happy enough to stay there.

But who can say what will happen in the mobile space in the near future? The next generation of iPhones, Google Nexus, Nokia, or even Tizen or Firefox devices may have functionality that sees it swallow market share in the same fashion that the first couple of iPhones did.

With the fast-paced mobile ecosystem being the driver of the push into automotive apps, and the state of the mobile ecosystem likely to change again with the next Apple or Google developer conference, it is in the best interests of everyone if the mobile phone and automotive app mind melding remains an optional extra that runs on top of whatever system that a vehicle already has.

In a perfect world, it would be helpful to have a common platform and standard connection to interact with the new smarter dashboards that are coming.

But that place does not exist, and instead, we have to sit and hope that we are able replace one system for another when we so choose. I wouldn't want to be locked into a BMW-iPhone partnership anymore than a Mercedes-Android duo looks attractive.

There is always the third option of not taking part at all, and until things settle down, I'd be recommending the last option and using the trusty old Bluetooth connection to pair phone and car together. It may not have Siri or voice integration, but it works pretty good for navigation and music playback, and that seems to be the majority of what these upcoming systems are offering.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

Previous openers:

Topics: Mobility, Android, Apple


Chris started his journalistic adventure in 2006 as the Editor of Builder AU after originally joining CBS as a programmer. After a Canadian sojourn, he returned in 2011 as the Editor of TechRepublic Australia, and is now the Australian Editor of ZDNet.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Sync does use touch screens now.

    "While it was easy for app developers to add Sync functionality into apps, the user interface on the Sync unit, and the fact that the display was a couple of mere lines of text and not a touchscreen"

    Yeah, that's an old iteration of Sync. The newer iteration, "My Ford Touch" I think it's called, uses a touch screen. I've got it in my Ford Focus.
    • MyFord Touch and Apps

      MyFord Touch currently does not have support for AppLink, much to the complaints of thousands of users.

      The original Ford Sync was developed by Microsoft with Ford. When MyFord Touch was developed, Ford engaged a 3rd Party developer to develop the UI on Microsoft's O/S, which is riddled with problems. Ford last year sent the 3rd Party developer to the curb, and went back to Microsoft (which has, in turn, contracted with the original 3rd Party developer). The most recent 3.6.2 release (Last August) of MyFord Touch incorporates some of the first fixes from this new arrangement, but to improve stability, they have removed additional feature functionality.

      At the same time, Ford recently acquired another mobile platform developer, no word yet on if this new acquisition will be working on the existing platform or be focused on the next-generation platform.
    • Sync vs My Ford Touch

      Sync and My Ford Touch are two distinct products.

      Sync is the ability to connect a phone and access music, make calls, etc using Voice Commands. There are a lot of Fords that have this feature and the "screen" is limited to a small LCD display on the radio or on the Dash or both. The Ford Focus, for example, has a 2.5 inch LCD between the Tach and Speedometer.

      My Ford Touch is an enhancement to the Sync feature that includes a center console touch display that integrates the Sync features as well as other car systems such as Climate and radio controls. GPS can be added (at additional cost) via a SD card.
      • Ford Sync & Touch

        I don't know about older models, but for the 2014 Ford models, sync and touch have worked flawlessly pairing with my Nokia 1020. I don't need a GPS because my phone has a free Nokia one that works really well without a data connection. It's fast although not always perfect in address finding. The only hang up I have is remembering to the swipe and two clicks it takes to turn bluetooth on on my phone before I start driving. At least the pairing is always noticeable on the dashboard while driving.

        This is my first experience with flawless Bluetooth pairing. Based on years of headaches trying to use Bluetooth in the past, including with old Nokia and MS software/hardware, I had little interest and less than zero expectation of the hands free system when buying my vehicle. I was paired up within 15 seconds of learning how and no issues with day in and day out usage after months of in city and highway driving.

        Hands down easiest, most reliable wireless system I've ever used. YMMV
  • No connection please..

    There is only one thing that my car and my phone both need to do. Play music.
    The ONLY "wireless" thing they could make a car do that I might pay money for is be a high powered wifi hot spot with unlimited high speed data for under 40$ a month.
    My car doesn't need to be a phone that can't be used for 20 hours a day. It doesn't need to be a "navigator" using a proprietary system that requires a new "subscription" of maps every month.
    It doesn't need to be a "black box" whose information can be gotten from the manufacturer with nothing more than a secret national security letter.
    It doesn't need to be anything much more than a car that plays music from advertiser supported over the air stations, CD's, or maybe music stored on my phone.
  • All I want...

    All I really want is a head unit with a touch interface that will display google maps and navigation via my hotspot capable phone's data connection (with a built in base-map for when I'm unable to pull a decent data connection to my carrier) and the Bluetooth A-ptx streaming protocol so I can stream high quality music from my phone (also, I want the audio player to show track information on the head unit as well as album art). Also a nice Pandora interface.

    Everything else is just gravy.
    • We'd all love that ....

      But I doubt we'll ever see it. The automotive OEMs make too much margin on their own navigation systems (often included in the higher trim levels) and they have plenty of takers. Add to that the wireless data connection speeds required between the mobile device and the car, the broadband wireless speeds to the mobile device from the air, etc., and there are likely too many potential points of failure from a systems and integration perspective. That leads to dissatisfaction on the part of users/customers and loss of brand loyalty for the automotive OEMs (admit it: whom would you blame for the inevitable problems: your car or your phone?).
  • drivers are bad enough

    to many drivers are bad enough on their own with out playing with toys built into their dash boards. take the toys out of the car dash boards go back to simple radios with cd players, if anything the auto makers need to be forced to install jamming aids that kill phones and anything else that makes the driver take their minds off driving .

    why do I feel this way? how about a head on by a speeding distracted driver going the other way with their smart phone in one hand and a smoke in the hand holding the steering wheel
  • I've been using MyLink

    It seems a very good balance of what should be incorporated into a smartphone to car interface. The Bluetooth link is faultless, it works with iPhone, WP8 and Android. The system is built over a Vista backend so the voice commands and text message read back and response are excellent. The phones pull power from the car so you can use the phones GPS. Music playback is based on the synched phone, we have used Xbox Music, Video and iTunes. They all work problem free. The touch screen is not distracting and is smart enough to stop video playback when the car is in motion and all the most common functions can be accessed with buttons on the steering wheel that all work regardless of phone type. This is as much integration as I would ever want to see on a car. The funny thing is that the integration is so well done that the OnStar system is totally redundant beyond remote door unlock.
    The Heretic