Smart phone apps market revs up for in-vehicle opportunity

13 Oct 2009

From smart phone apps to smart car apps – the battle for the planet of the apps is on and device makers, software creators and car manufacturers are angling for a share of a powerful new market.

According to iSuppli manufacturers BMW, Nokia and Parrot SA demonstrated different approaches at the recent Frankfurt Motor Show.

“The global automotive industry has entered an exciting phase with OEMs, suppliers and software developers all pushing innovative and unique approaches to add apps to cars,” said Kevin Hamlin, analyst for automotive electronics at iSuppli Corp.

“For software developers, this opens a whole new domain to sell their apps. For car makers, apps provide new ways to deliver infotainment and telematics services to customers.

“For motorists, apps allow them to enjoy their infotainment systems to the fullest, while paying only for the applications they want, thus saving them money. With apps so critical to the automotive market, companies are pushing approaches that benefit their specific goals. While the solutions shown at the Frankfurt Motor Show were only concepts, they clearly reflect what will soon be on the market.”

The Concept BMW Application Store

BMW used Frankfurt Motor Show to unveil its newest aspect of its ConnectedDrive offerings: the Concept BMW Application Store.

The store offers several different apps to users who can then download them to their iDrive via the car or a home PC and then transfer the applications to the car. So far, the apps available include multimedia travel guides from Merian, Geowiki, various games, Web radio, podcasts, Facebook, XING and Twitter.

The Concept BMW Application Store also allows users to transfer contact data to the navigation system or mobile phone.

In addition, the apps are able to pull vehicle-related information — for example, taking the car’s location into account when using the social networking tool XING. BMW in the future also hopes to have a constant stream of new apps available for users.

Leading phone maker Nokia, which recently bought map provider Navteq, introduced its concept approach at IAA, as well. Nokia’s approach is more about mobile-device integration with the vehicle rather than introducing applications.

But it was not just a simple iPod connection or Bluetooth connection that Nokia introduced; rather, it was a cable that brings the entire functionality of the smart phone or other device to the vehicle.

Nokia’s phone and vehicle connection

The Nokia Research Center demonstrated that it is developing a cable that connects a phone and the vehicle’s headunit. The connection allows all of the phone’s functions to appear on the vehicle’s headunit display for control by voice, touchscreen, or whatever human-machine interface the vehicle uses.

Users would be familiar with the user interface — the same one they see on their phones. Also, since the head unit is usually connected to a car’s Controller Area Network (CAN) bus, the Nokia concept allows for the exchange of information between the device and the vehicle, enabling the display of fuel levels or map-based ADAS alerts.

Although Nokia demonstrated a cable, it is developing a system that works by Bluetooth. The demonstration also used a Magneti Marelli headunit, but Nokia stated it can be used with any headunit and any mobile device.

An Android-Java-based headunit

Wireless equipment supplier Parrot unveiled a new headunit at Frankfurt that is Android-Java-based. The company’s FC6100 module offers automotive implementation of all smart phone features.

The headunit itself includes hands-free Bluetooth, A2DP audio streaming, speaker-independent voice recognition, multimedia connectivity, smart-track browsing and playlist management, 3G+ Web browsing and 3.0 Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

While all of these features are appealing, it is the Android/Java-based Operating System (OS) that is most intriguing. The Android/Java OS allows for an easily customisable user interface for OEMs, plus a vast open source community of developers.

In fact, applications that are developed for smart phones that use Android can also be used for this module. Developers do not have to develop something separately for the car. This means that hundreds of applications are already available for the module.

The various apps solutions shown at IAA provided something for every automotive OEM.

For car makers desiring to control content and not worry about installing new hardware, then BMW’s solution is optimal. If OEMs wish to give the customer freedom plus a hardware solution with multiple-connectivity pipes, Parrot is the solution. If OEMs want to give that same freedom at a cheaper price with minimal design changes, Nokia’s concept is the answer.

Whichever way the automakers go, iSupply predicts mobile apps are going to become more readily available in the vehicle.

By John Kennedy

Photo: In-car apps draw on car-related data.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years