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Updated: Will the Tesla Model S be the Next Great Mobile Apps Platform?

The Tesla Model S may define where the in-car mobile apps market goes, but it probably won't lead it overall. Here's why.

(Updated and revised 6 :30 pm PT, Oct. 3, with information from a Tesla Motors spokesperson) Through a connection, I visited Tesla Motors on Saturday evening during its open house for buyers of the coming Model S electric sedan. It pretty much hit the holy trinity of awesome-ness for me: great food and drink, hanging out with pals (a number of the dads of my kids' school friends work at Tesla) and seeing mind-blowing tech in action.

On the latter, there was almost too much to geek out over. There were Tesla's 'trainable' manufacturing robots, which wowed my kids but felt a little early-Skynet to me. There was the eco-tastic choice of materials for the Model S, like the compressed banana leaf veneer for your door and dashboard. It's really cool, but to future Model S owners: Please don't name-drop it at your next cocktail party lest you sound like Ron Burgundy mentioning his leather-bound book collection and apartment smelling of rich mahogany. And while a lot of you have heard about the Model S's peerless electric battery system, did you know it can now beat the BMW M5 and other muscle-bound Euro luxury sedans in a sprint?

I'll focus on the Model S's infotainment system, based around the vertical 17-inch LCD screen that takes up the entire center console ((there is another 12.3 inch LCD screen in front of the driver that will display speed, fuel battery life remaining, etc.)

In the party tent, I spoke to several of the engineers working on the system and gleaned some details not previously reported at the Model S's prior unveilings. While I think it's extremely exciting for consumers and pushes the state-of-the-art for mobile electronics, its viability for would-be developers remains unclear.


Is the Model S's 17-inch LCD-based system the future of in-car infotainment?

Let's start with the good stuff. At about 100-plus square inches, the LCD is about 3 times larger than the 10-inch screens (about 36 square inches) of the iPad and the next-largest car display, the 2009 BMW 7-Series. Indeed, the tennis-racket-sized screen is about 8 times larger than the 6-inch screens in most of today's conventional 2-DIN LCD car stereos/DVD players. Imagine playing Angry Birds on that.

Here's the not as good. The screen as of today is a single-finger multi-touch display (according to a Monday e-mail from a Tesla spokesperson). Instead of the projected capacitive technology used by the latest smartphones and tablets, the screen uses infrared.

Now, there are two kinds of infrared touchscreens. The first is a relatively old technology that has been used in point-of-sale systems and outdoor displays. The second is a variety its makers like to call 'optical imaging' and which is used in modern multi-touch-enabled PCs like HP's TouchSmart. It sounded like Tesla is using the latter variety. Thus, I'm guessing that the single-touch is a correctable software issue.

Optical imaging screens do have two chief advantages over capacitive screens like the iPad. First, users are not required to use their bare finger (which creates an electrostatic charge detectable by a capacitive touchscreen. That means users can be wearing driving gloves on the Model S screen. Perhaps more important, optical imaging screens are way cheaper today than capacitive ones at sizes like 17-inches.

Despite all of that, Tesla might still move to a capacitive touchscreen, I was told.

On the internal guts: the system will run an ARM-based Nvidia Tegra CPU/GPU combo. Today, that would be the Nvidia Tegra 2 based on the dual-core Arm Cortex-A9.

By the mid-2012 release of the Model S, however, it could be a Tegra 3 (Kal-El)  that will be five times faster than the Tegra 2 inside the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, the Lenovo IdeaPad Tablets, the Motorola Xoom and others. Or it could even be a Tegra (Wayne) with a 4-core ARM Cortex-A15 that will reportedly be 10x faster than the Tegra 2.

With heat generation and energy draw not an issue compared to a tablet or a smartphone, I would guess Tesla will use as powerful of a chip as possible. That's good for developers envisioning graphics-rich apps, but bad as it makes it harder for them to plan and start coding.

As I mentioned, the overall software is based on an unspecified flavor of Linux (definitely not Android),(Tesla is indeed using Linux, confirmed the spokesperson, NOT QNX, as per a tip I received from a reader) and is completely built from the ground up, along with the user interface, by Tesla. While not directly managing mission-critical components like the steering wheel or engine, the infotainment system still must communicate with them, while controlling very important things like the door locks and other cabin controls, the navigation/GPS, air conditioning, music, etc.

Speaking of the GPS: as of now drivers can navigate using either Google Maps or a full-fledged text-to-speech GPS app licensed from Navigon (not finalized, says Tesla). Navigon is a German-based GPS maker that was, even before its acquisition by Garmin, focusing on GPS apps for mobile devices rather than selling standalone hardware units (a wise move in light of market trends).

Pandora has inked the most integration deals with car stereo makers. I was told that Tesla plans may (according to Tesla spokesperson) to include a Slacker radio app in its system. I applaud that. While I use and subscribe to both services, I tire of Pandora's music suggestions, which feel as unadventurous as FM radio formats. I find Slacker is much better at taking my playlists and favorites and suggesting new, unheard-of artists and rare songs from existing bands and singers.

You will be able to stream Pandora and play music or video files residing on your smartphone or tablet onto the Model S system. A big if: whether you'll be able to control your iPad or Droid in general from the Model S. Being able to type a quick note-to-self into your iPhone's Evernote app from the Model S's virtual keyboard, or check sales contacts residing in your SAP mobile CRM app, would be a great feature, but one engineer seemed unsure how much virtual connectivity would be available. If it does build it, Tesla is leaning towards iOS, though this is not definite.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk had said back in March that the Model S would support 3rd-party apps and text-to-voice capabilities. The latter "can address some of the issues with driver distraction," he said at the time.

I heard conflicting things on how this would be achieved, though. One engineer said that Tesla might make it possible for mobile apps from Android or iOS to run on its system. That suggests a real-time compatibility middleware, like the Java Micro Edition runtime still popular on featurephones, or what RIM is building to run Android apps on its QNX OS-based BlackBerry PlayBook.

The advantage of that approach is that it would bring many apps over to the Model S quickly. The disadvantage is that the apps may not run perfectly or fail to take advantage of the Model S's screen and UI. You could end up with situations like the written-for-iPhone Redfin real estate app, which looks pixelated and primitive when run on my iPad - but far far worse.

The contrasting approach, which I was also told that Tesla is considering, is to offer a custom SDK (Software Development Kit). This would require developers to invest in the time and labor of rewriting their apps or creating original apps.

For developers of car-specific apps, this would've been the only way to go, anyway. Note: the Model S does use the standard CAN (Controller Area Network) protocol for electronic communication between car components.

But for more general ISVs, taking a game or productivity app onto a platform that will only have 20,000 potential buyers in its first year will be much less tempting, when you weigh the now hundreds of millions of Android users.

The other reason Tesla may favor the SDK approach is that it can help ensure that the apps do not interfere with the Model S's other real-time, mission-critical systems such as the steering, battery, etc.

A third, semi-complementary approach is to wait and hope that HTML-5 will spur the creation of many Web-based apps. The Model is well-positioned for that scenario. Its Web browser is based on the Webkit engine, which also powers Safari and Google Chrome, i.e. iOS and Android. I didn't ask more details about ACID compliance, etc.

Back to hardware: connected devices include a rear-view safety camera and Bluetooth integration with your mobile phone for hands-free calling. External slots include SD card and 4(!) USB ports. There is no DVD disc player. Videos can be still be played via streaming or files uploaded via the above slots. I forgot to ask what kind of storage the Model S will use, but my guess is that it will be an SSD.

As for wireless connectivity, the options today include Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and 3G via a GSM modem chip. T-Mobile or AT&T would be the obvious carrier candidates, with the latter presumably in the lead for its larger customer base/footprint.  Tesla might still yet swap that GSM chip out for a 4G modem with another carrier, though, I was told.

The Model S will probably prove to be the state of the art for in-car mobile devices when it launches next year, ahead of BMW's iDrive. The 17-inch screen is just that impressive. But with the glut of mobile platforms out there, I think Tesla needs to announce its developer program as soon as possible.

Only Apple can get away with holding its iOS cards so close to the vest, because everyone has faith that it will deliver something amazing and millions of buyers will follow. Most other platform makers are more like Microsoft, banging the drum for every new Windows Phone feature months ahead of time repeatedly til you're almost sick of it, while also offering copious technical and financial assistance. Despite its sexycool, the Model S market will be tiny for the next several years. To woo developers, Tesla may have to take more of a Microsoft approach here.

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