Hybrid Platform Solution

As part of my prep for speaking with The LA Times, I thought a bit about third party developers and hybrid solutions. Here is how I frame it; I think third parties entering the automotive sector can bring a lot of value in the form of fresh ideas – ideas for better presentation of rich information, better sources of information – but as I said before, I’m not a believer that mobile apps, per se, are the answer, but rather they are an interim step to a hybrid platform solution.

I advocate for leaving functions on the phone for things that have daily usage, but low resource needs, things where latency won’t kill the experience.

In my mind’s eye, a hybrid platform system uses multiple communication pathways, puts applications and features where they make the most sense from a resource perspective, and seriously considers maintenance, over the air updates, and servicing as part of the entire system.

I am a firm believer that communication in and out of the vehicle will be a combination of embedded cell phones for critical vehicular functions that the OEMs will likely pay the majority of the bill for and a personal paired cell phone for pure entertainment and streaming. There is no easy elegant way to do this now. The customer will be forced to add another “communication node” onto an existing account or get a second subscription. These type of barriers are proving very high for the tablet market and they feel almost insurmountable for the auto industry. Why customers are so reticent to get a second communication speaks volume to the resentment most feel for Carriers in general. All this means is that the business model to make cars and personal phones work is going to be in flux for quite some time.

I think Aeris Communications has some of the most creative ideas. And they are looking at the problem in the right way and for what it really is – a business model problem more than a technical problem. If you don’t believe me, sit down and really listen to Drew Johnson and Steve Millstein frame the problem from their point of view. (Full disclosure here – I adore Steve and have for many, many years. I’m just getting to know Drew and find him wickedly insightful.) Personally, I am a huge fan of machine-to-machine communications technologies and think our collective future lies in what companies like Aeris are doing. The whole Internet Of Things just reminds me so much of the early days of telematics, it’s really exciting. And just like communications is still the thorn in the side of widespread telematics adoption, communications will be a crucial gating factor for IOT to take off. But I’m digressing here. I promise to write more about “persistent communications” and spectrum crunch in another post.

Getting back to vehicles, smartphone integration strategies are and will be all over the map for a while and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. What OEMs are seeking to do is put features – essentially coding – where it makes the most sense to them. Some argue that utilizing the head unit and vehicle resources is the best course because you do not get as much performance lag. But the trade off is keeping it current and maintaining your code base is a total nightmare. Ford customers had to plug in a USB drive and leave their cars running for 45 minutes to update the MyFordTouch system. This is not ideal for anyone. I think code native to the head unit has enormous complications with staying current so, it is logical to only put code there for things that don’t change much. Granted, I don’t think Ford had it in mind to change out their entire system, but that is another blog entry .

Updates and maintenance can overburden and kill a system; those ideally should be handled via a cloud service. The cloud is also idea to handle provisioning – remotely turn features on/off. This is useful if an OEM license deal for a service expires or a service ceases to exists. Yes, there are tradeoffs, but I think they are worth making.

I advocate for leaving functions on the phone for things that have daily usage, but low resource needs, things where latency won’t kill the experience. Put everything else in the cloud – abstract the resources to run and maintain the functions – especially if it’s fast moving, rapidly changing APIs.

Actually integrating the smartphone to the head unit can happen in several different ways – screen mirroring, app-to-app communications, or creating a proxy to the cloud. I like to break it down to how data/service is delivered to the head unit. This can either be app-to-app communication like SmartDevicelink or Ford Sync, whereby an app on the smartphone adds a communication protocol and can communicate with an app on the head unit. Or you can have a content aggregation app such as the TGT solution for Entune, which I helped build, or BMW Mini Connect. Think of it as one big smartphone app that aggregates access to content in smartphone and communicates with head unit. The phone is essentially a data pipe and proxy to remote services. You can also consider screen-mirroring technologies like Mirrorlink and iOS in the Car. I am not big on screen mirroring technologies. I think the whole premise that it is less distracting because it is an interface customers already know is patently false. It has taken me quite some time to learn the new iOS on my phone and even longer to figure out my Samsung Phablet. These are not “inherently easier” user interfaces. They take time to poke around and figure out. This does not mean that I think infotainment systems do not need fixing in the design area. Quite the opposite. I just do not believe that the mobile phone mirroring solution is the answer. The answer is more complicated and nuanced. It is not one or the other; it is a combination.

This is not to say I do not dearly love my little electronic pal I keep with me all the time and use endlessly. But it is an honest recognition that my iPhone is not perfect and will not simply transfer to my VW Jetta Sport Wagon (diesel) flawlessly and save me from my lame infotainment system. The mobile bias I hear around the Valley all the times is just poppycock and every time I hear it, I think, ahhhh, this person hasn’t been around long enough or has thought hard enough about the problem. And I’m fine with that so, long as the person has an open mind to learn a bit.