Telematics and the app ecosystem

Posted by James [1] on May 8, 2012

Susan Kuchinskas looks at how OEMs and developers are trying to safely replicate the thriving mobile phone ecosystem in the car

There's still quite a disconnect between the mobile phone and automotive industries, with many mobile development shops focused on the bigger and more immediate opportunities on smartphones.

But car companies want to get some of that sizzle out of the pocket and onto the dashboard. To do this, they need to not only do deals but also put technology in place that will let developers either port existing applications or write new ones for the car.

OEMs need to invite apps into the car while making sure they don't compromise safety or performance. The most efficient strategy to date is to expose application programming interfaces, or APIs, from the in-car systems that limit app functionality while defining the HMI.

The industry also needs to provide software development kits, or SDKs, that make it easier for developers to tailor applications and provide suitable content to the car. (For more on apps, see Special report: Telematics and apps [2].)

What developers need

Glympse is a mobile phone app that lets you share your location with someone for a set period of time; for example, you can schedule location sharing with a business associate to start a half hour before a meeting and to end when the meeting is over.

Unlike many mobile phone developers, Glympse has long been interested in moving into the automotive sector. Darren Austin, vice president of products for Glympse, says, "The use case is so perfect for the automotive sector that it could be a big value to consumers, so it's a place we would like to be." There's also a higher level of stickiness to in-car apps, he thinks; if consumers use the app more often, they're less likely to churn from the service.

Austin says that mobile developers need a few things from the industry. First is a platform or SDK that's relatively straightforward to implement: "It should be very well-architected so our developers can easily integrate it into our application."

More important than tech, however, is the level of commitment from the automotive manufacturer, Austin says: "We want to know there is an opportunity for users to understand and get exposure that Glympse is enabled there." In other words, Glympse doesn't want to get lost in a massive list of applications presented to consumers, as can happen with the Apple and Android marketplaces.

Ideally, he would like to see his app made a feature of the car, providing automatic distribution to the OEMs installed base. "Ultimately, our relationship would be with the auto company," he says.

Developers also are hungry for the kind of marketing and publicity that car makers can provide; for example, the way Ford has raised the profile of Pandora. In this fragmented market, there's no clear leader in delivering APIs and SDKs.

As recent announcements show, this kind of leadership can come from auto makers themselves, tier 1s, TSPs or software companies. (For more on the relationship between apps and auto makers, see Telematics: What’s next for apps and services, part I [3]and Telematics: What’s next for apps and services, part II [4].)

The OEM connection

Last September, Ford announced it would begin shipping beta test kits of OpenXC, its open-source connectivity research platform created in partnership with Bug Labs. The kit lets developers read data from the vehicle's internal communications network so that they can create both software applications and plug-and-play hardware modules.

Ford also continues to expand AppLink, the software that provides voice control for apps on a driver's smartphone. Says Jim Buczkowski, director of global electrical and electronics systems engineering for Ford, "There are hundreds of thousands of apps for the phone that help to customize it and create a very special experience for people. Leveraging this is a key part of our strategy with AppLink."

He says that AppLink makes it easier for developers to know their apps will work with SYNC, instead of having to create custom apps for every vehicle. Consumers will be able to go to the Apple App store or Android marketplace and select apps that can connect to the SYNC APIs.

"We've confirmed that by having a good set of APIs that developers can work very fast and get prototypes running very quickly," he says. (For more on app development, see Telematics and app development: The advantages of open innovation [5].)

The process for developers to hook up with Ford is still relatively one-on-one, however. Developers can apply on the developers' website, but then, Buczkowski says, Ford prioritizes and works with them individually: "We want to focus on the ones we think are important to customers and appropriate for the vehicle," he says.

But Buczkowski insists that this isn't creating a bottleneck for developers: "We're ramping up our support and learning while we go, trying to do it at a pace that makes sense."

It's a tricky balance between safety, utility and consumer appeal. Some OEMs are, like Nissan, still evaluating the best way to build their developer ecosystems. Nissan is looking at whether to offer a standard SDK or work with developers individually, according to Trisha Jung, director of vehicle-connected services for Nissan. "We need to make some strategic decisions about what we want to maintain in a closed versus an open environment," she says.

The TSP as developer liaison

Airbiquity recently launched its Application Developer Program, saying participants can receive a full Airbiquity Application Development Kit (ADK). The ADK will let smartphone application developers make their apps compatible with Airbiquity’s in-vehicle Mobile Integration solution.

Glympse is an early adopter of Airbiquity's developer program. Austin says integration of the app in cars using the Airbiquity platform is seamless, thanks to the tools provided. He says, "It's structured so that the Airbiquity in-dash console almost acts as an additional screen to your mobile device. When you get in the car, because we integrated with the Airbiquity ADK, your car becomes aware of the app and you can control the core functions from the dashboard."

Black Duck Software, a provider of products and services related open-source software (OSS), announced its own push into the automotive space in March. Black Duck has a strategic partnership with Monta Vista Software, a specialist in embedded Linux-based platforms that offers the GENIVI-compliant Automotive Technology Platform, and it is itself a member of the GENIVI Alliance.

Black Duck is working with OEMs inside and outside the alliance to help them keep track of OSS code and licenses. At the same time, it is making significant investments in its developer offerings, including Koders.com, a code search engine for OSS, and Ohloh.net, a free, public directory of open source projects and contributors.

The company says these tools will help developers more rapidly learn about, evaluate and adopt OSS building blocks, because they can more easily find code to use.

As members of the GENIVI Alliance build the infotainment software stack on top of the Linux kernel, the software will be exposed in a series of APIs that developers will use to build out the application environment itself, according to Dave Gruber, director of developer marketing for Black Duck.

Black Duck's developer tools, he says, will help developers working in the application environment to connect their applications with basic auto controls and information systems in a controlled way. Gruber acknowledges that alliance members will be the first to get access to the code and APIs, but he thinks that over time an ecosystem of third-party developers will evolve.

Whether it's alliance members or scrambling startups that are writing on the GENIVI platform, they will need to know where their code came from and keep track of licenses, and that's where Black Duck hopes to play a bigger role. Gruber says, "As they start to build up this platform, we are helping the industry manage supply chain levels in a more governed way. OSS developers need to have visibility into all the software that goes into what they're shipping."

Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.

For more all the latest telematics trends, check out Telematics Detroit 2012 [6] on June 6-7 and Insurance Telematics USA 2012 [7] in September in Chicago.

For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports on In-Vehicle Smartphone Integration Report [8], Human Machine Interface Technologies [9] and Smart Vehicle Technology: The Future of Insurance Telematics [10].