If apps are to catch on in the car, the automotive industry needs to build a thriving developer community. Susan Kuchinskas explains how
If you want to understand how to build a thriving developer community, you could do worse than to look at NAVTEQ.
NN4D, its three-year-old developers’ community, has more than 40,000 members.
The provider of maps, traffic, and location data recently added NN4D Classified Ads, a free listing service intended to connect developers and partners.
NAVTEQ staffers are also enthusiastic users of social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter.
“We think social media addresses developer culture and early adopters,” says Tom Tierney, director of partner and developer programs for NAVTEQ.
“We know our developers are very connected. Younger users are all on their mobile devices for everything.”
This level of openness and connectedness is relatively rare in the insular automotive world.
Of course, most developers participating in NN4D are not working on automotive applications. (For more on the app development community, see ‘Three Screen Strategy Highlighted at Telematics Detroit 2010’.)
Telematics providers compete for developer creativity with smartphone operating systems and platforms, points out Ralf Hug, principal of Trajectory Group.
The smartphone marketplace attracts developers with a big addressable market, quick time-to-market, and a transparent value train.
“The key question is: Can any of these be met in the automotive environment today or anytime soon?” Hug asks.
“The answer is, obviously not. There is this dream out there that the automotive app store looks like the smartphone model, but developers want to know, ‘What is my revenue in dollars?’” (For more on apps and revenue, see ‘Telematics and connectivity: Which comes first, the app or the money?'.)
The need for intermediaries
On the OEM side, carmakers have some questions, too.
“So far, there is still a level of quality and expectation in vehicle that surpasses the phone market,” says Louis A. Brugman, vice president of product planning for Pioneer Automotive Technologies.
“Sometimes, my phone can’t even answer a call. Are consumers willing to take that risk in vehicles?”
The mismatch between development cycles, expectations of quality, and value chain between the automotive and smartphone marketplaces has created the need for intermediaries that can marry small, creative development shops with global automotive players. (For more on development cycles, see ‘Reinventing the telematics service provider’.)
Sometimes, the marriage is accomplished with plenty of handholding.
For example, Ford Motor Co.’s participation on experimental projects like the DARPA Challenges help researchers connect with developers not constrained by the needs of the current marketplace.
Jeffrey Rupp, a Ford safety manager, says his researchers set up intellectual property agreements with other entities on these teams in order to make sure everyone’s contribution is protected and acknowledged correctly.
When these experimental projects do result in usable technology, it is not so easy.
“When you try to take research and make it into a reproducible product, all the purchasing, setting up contracts, and relationships is a huge machine,” Rupp says.
“Breaking somebody into that who hasn’t been a traditional supplier requires a whole new level of energy.”
In these cases, Ford may use one of a variety of models, including helping developers license their technology to a tier 1 supplier or giving Ford’s engineers the right to bring mutually developed technology in-house.
New opportunities as matchmakers
At the same time, traditional OEM suppliers are finding new opportunities in the matchmaker role.
In January, Pioneer announced its Platform for Aggregation of Internet Services, or PAIS, soon expected to be released in limited beta.
The PAIS platform is a device portal with voice recognition that normalizes the interface among multiple device and application types, including in-vehicle telematics, MIDs, TVs, home theaters, and smartphone apps.
Pioneer’s Brugman says PAIS could let existing services easily enter the car, thus answering the problem of not having enough automotive units to make it worth developers’ trouble.
“PAIS helps us act as a mediator,” Brugman says.
“We can plug and play different services on the back end, keeping the head unit constant.”
A standardized approach
Airbiquity is another platform that aims to be the translator between smartphone apps and the car.
“If an ISV or application developer has to customize the app to each specific vehicle, that way madness lies,” says Leo McCloskey, Airbiquity’s vice president of marketing.
“One of the ways that can be solved is with a standard approach. Our hope is that by contributing to how this should be done, we can allow applications people are now buying for smartphone and pad platforms to be easily made available inside the vehicle.”
The most recent entry into the developer match game is, not surprisingly, NAVTEQ, which released AppWarehouse in October.
NAVTEQ intends to expose this new facility to its channel partners in mobile, retail, and enterprise as well as automotive.
Rather than an automated marketplace, AppWarehouse is very much about personal introductions.
“Because of where we are with location-based services, OEMs know us through navigation, so they are asking us what’s going on in other segments,” NAVTEQ’s Tierney says.
“We’re in an interesting position to be able to consult and advise around applications.”
Today, NAVTEQ works with customers with whom it already has relationships, so there’s no fee for its developer matchmaking services.
The idea is: Being in the middle will bring new business opportunities down the road.
Moreover, the deal flow won’t be all one-way, from smartphones and the Web to auto telematics, Tierney believes.
For example, smartphone maker Research in Motion acquired automotive telematics firm QNX and is now using the QNX operating system for its recently released Blackberry Playbook tablet.
“We may have expertise in our QNX developers that could easily port their applications to the tablet,” says Tierney.
“There will be cross-pollination, so let’s grease the skids and help the convergence.”
Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.