Asking for automotive smartphone integration as an optional extra

The coming together of car dashboards and smartphone apps is nearing, but it is not going to be as intimate as many hope.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

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.

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