Smartphone OS Tentacles
Recently, there have been major pushes by the makers of smartphone OSes (most notably Google and Apple) into extending their software’s connectivity to other devices. The most commonly cited example is wearables, such as the oft-cited though still vaporware iWatch and the underwhelming Galaxy Gear. Slightly less well known, though no less important, is the push by Apple and Google into the automotive infotainment space through CarPlay and Android Auto respectively.
Both “standards” are designed to provide virtually the same functionality: hands-free calling, turn-by-turn navigation, SMS functionality, and music streaming through a set of pre-approved and heavily curated services and apps. I call them “standards” because they are really just proprietary layers that only operate within the respective Google or Apple ecosystem.
The current incarnation of automotive infotainment systems are mostly driven by the various bluetooth protocols. While bluetooth is certainly capable of information transfer (there are more than 20 bluetooth protocols), it’s not designed to be a high bandwidth platform. As a result, automakers have started to look elsewhere to expand infotainment system capabilities.
Moreover, since the infotainment system is mostly outside of what automakers excel at (i.e. making automobiles), it stands to reason that they would be interested in outsourcing this functionality as much as possible to someone who is a subject matter expert. Enter Google and Apple, who are more than happy to supplant the vendor-specific infotainment systems that exist today with something a bit more standard, although still vendor-specific.
Apple and Google both announced their “solutions” to the “in-car infotainment” problem to much fanfare and also announced a set of partners that overlaps heavily (both carmarkers and aftermarket parts suppliers). We also know that Apple’s CarPlay will only work with Apple iOS (version 7.1 and later and only on the iPhone 5 and later) and Google’s Android Auto will only work with Google’s Android operating system (version L and later).
The Issue with Vendor Lock-In
These developments bring about several new pain points for consumers. The first is that if a consumer buys a car, they now have to purchase an infotainment system specific to their current choice in phone. Conversely, carmakers could include both infotainment experiences (CarPlay and Android Auto) in a single system. Since these capabilities are not compatible, a driver would essentially be paying for an infotainment system that their device can only be partially compatible with. That’s not to speak of families who all own different phones (like mine) where the situation would be even worse.
The second pain point is that this pushes us farther down the road of vendor lock in. If a consumer buys a car with CarPlay because she currently owns an iPhone, she would have to purchase a new iPhone upon replacing her current iPhone for it to continue to work with her car’s infotainment system. The same would be true with Android phones.
While the second point is exactly what Apple and Google want, it’s incredibly anti-consumer and short-sighted. It also presents the issue of support. Most people keep their cars for 4.75 years while the typical smartphone lasts around 16 months. With the pace of smartphone innovation, it’s entirely within the realm of possibility that after those 4.75 years are up, the latest smartphones (which the average consumer will have upgraded 3-4 times) may not support the car’s proprietary capabilities; severely damaging the resale value.
We Need a Better Solution
Rather than vendors who have a vested interest in working alone to tailor a solution that only works on their latest OSes, we need a single, open solution collaborated on by all of the big players in the automotive market (automakers, aftermarket vendors, and smartphone companies). Such a solution may potentially exist in MirrorLink, which leverages open standards to surface a phone’s user interface and provides much of the same functionality as Android Auto and CarPlay, but it’s not proprietary.
Why is an open, standard solution a better way forward? Firstly, the dominant smartphone in one market is not necessarily the dominant smartphone somewhere else. While Google’s Android largely owns the smartphone market worldwide, there are plenty of places where the iPhone has a large market share as well (i.e. the United States). Secondly, if the two companies refuse to work together, consumers end up with vendor-specific solutions that have the potential to hamper adoption. In addition, by limiting the selection of apps that function with a car’s infotainment system, innovation is stymied for both interface design and application development. New players can’t enter the market against established brands because they’ll be unlikely to get over the hurdle posed by the certifications, especially if they compete directly with an existing, certified service or app.
Instead, a system that allows developers to smartly tap into the car’s infotainment system through the smartphone OS in a standardized way (i.e. the same on iOS and Android), while still pulling the cues for interface design from the OS, provides a better way forward for everyone. A way that doesn’t tie your watch or your glasses or your car to your current choice in phone.