Sunday, March 23, 2014

Google vs Apple CarPlay: why maps hold the key for in-car supremacy

Apple vs Google: the in-car battle is on
With the launch of Apple CarPlay, Google and Apple are on collision course in the contest for car tech supremacy.

But in my view, Google already has Apple well beaten.

Both Apple and Google have now unveiled plans to get their mobile operating systems, usually found in phones and tablets, running in cars.

The first skirmish in what is likely to be a drawn-out battle will be all about mapping and navigation. And Google Maps is miles ahead of Apple Maps.

Factor in Google's broader track record in automotive tech, including driverless cars and the promise of Google Glass and a very strong case for favouring it over Apple in the contest for in-car supremacy emerges.

There are also some broader issues to get your head around when it comes to mobile OS's moving in-car. For the most part, it's a welcome and arguably long overdue move, even if some early attempts to do the same thing are already available from some car brands.

But there's also a limit to what you can achieve with a mobile OS ported into cars. Make no mistake, this doesn't all mean the car makers are giving up on in-car technology.

CarPlay allows your iPhone to power your car's infotainment system

iOS and Android: The in-car basics

"By using a mobile device to power some of the systems, you can have the latest technology and sidestep lengthy car development cycles"
Anyway, let's get the housekeeping done and cover the basic background to all this. We'll come back to maps and head-up displays in a moment.

Apple has rebranded its in-car iOS functionality CarPlay, while the equivalent Google technology is currently known as Android Projected Mode.

Both aim to do largely the same thing, namely sync a mobile device to a car's integrated infotainment system and use the former to drive features, functionality and even the on-screen interface.
In other words, the maps and multimedia functionality you seen on the car's display are actually being processed and rendered on the mobile device, typically a smartphone.

On the face of it, this brings plenty of really obvious advantages. Cars take an awfully long time between conception and going on sale. 

By using a mobile device to power some of the systems, you can have the latest technology and sidestep lengthy car development cycles. The car just needs to support the right car-to-phone interface. Laughing.

Apple already has a carpark full of car brands queuing up to use CarPlay

Easier in-car upgrades

Apple CarPlayEverything you need to know about iOS in the car
Likewise, by shifting some functionality onto your phone you can have an in-car tech upgrade every time you replace your handset. No need for a new car.

It's also a very attractive prospect for phone users / car owners as it means a single device can be used to manage your digital life, even in the car. You don't have to worry about moving data or contacts across, managing multiple data contracts, yada yada.

Similarly, it means you don't have to learn the nuances of yet another multimedia interface. If you wish, you can tie yourself into a single OS and really make the most of the ease of use that comes with intimate familiarity with the various nuances.

Lack of options

Moreover, the harsh truth is that most car companies have failed to come up with really compelling multimedia functionality of interfaces. Put simply, they're not experts at digital HMIs or mobile operating systems, so it makes sense to leave that to the real experts.

If that's the argue for, the argument against is that neither Apple nor Google have any track record for in-car interfaces.

It's a completely different problem to solve, involves all kinds of safety issues and challenges involving driver distraction that don't apply to other mobile devices, not to mention different reliability concerns.

If the mapping on your smartphone crashes or does something odd as you walk down the street, that's one thing. It's quite another if it happens while you're driving to Denmark.

We also need to be realistic about the limitations of iOS or Android in-car. The really exciting car tech innovations like driverless technology have nothing to do with syncing your smartphone.

Likewise, you'll still need advanced in-car systems with their own connectivity to enable features like remote unlocking and various telematic functionality. So let's not get carried away. Cars are not going to be empty shells with engines just waiting for your smartphone to be the brain. 

BMW's Connected Drive is the factory-fit gold standard iOS and Android must beat

Google's mapping advantage

That said, I think both Google and Apple are up to the basic task of an in-car interface and will in-time offer something as good as or superior to what the car makers have come up with so far.

In any case, it's happening so the question is which of the two will work better in-car? Initially, I reckon it will be Android and I make that prediction on the basis of Google's far superior mapping.

Apple Maps remains substandard. In fact, I reckon mapping is probably something Apple shouldn't be doing in-house. I don't get the impression the company has its heart and indeed wallet fully committed to the task.

By contrast, Google has been investing heavily for years. And it shows.

Moreover, mapping and nav is one area where Google can immediately give existing in-car systems a kicking. When I had a go in the Tesla Model S last year, possibly the best thing about it was the huge display combined with Google maps.

It's just so much better than the craptastic mapping offered by factory fit navigation systems. OK, the latest systems have finally begun to catch up with features like 7-digit postcode support (at last!) and IP-based traffic services and indeed Google search support.

But none that I have tried are as good as Google's own mapping product for functionality beyond basic turn-by-turn navigation.

Some car manufacturers already offer Google search

Mapping might turn out to be moot...

The rest of the potential feature set largely involves comms including social media and entertainment.
I don't think there will be a huge amount in it between the two platforms and in those areas your preferences will be guided by your existing views of Android vs iOS.

But not mapping. Mapping and nav really matters in cars and there Google will have a clear advantage. Could it be enough to actually push people from one platform to another? On that subject, it's not yet clear. 

It may turn out to be possible, for instance, to run the Google maps app in-car on an iOS device. At which point the mapping contest becomes moot (though it's symptomatic of Google's advantage that nobody will be clamoring to run Apple maps on an Android device...).
But I can think of reasons why neither Apple nor Google would want to enable that, so we'll have to wait and see.

Hyundai has already announced Google Glass support in its upcoming Genesis

Google Glass and driverless cars

"I think there's at least a chance Google Glass could turn out to be the sort of in-car feature people will one day wonder how they lived without."
As for Google Glass, that's a bit more speculative. Changes in legislation may be required to allow people to even drive while using Google Glass.

But at least one car maker, Hyundai, has already announced Google Glass support. And I think there's at least a chance it could turn out to be the sort of in-car feature people will one day wonder how they lived without.

At the same time, it's worth noting that Google is just generally much more active in the automotive space than Apple. What with its driverless car project, I reckon the company probably has a more developed understanding of car tech in general. 

By contrast, I see no reason to think Apple will succeed specifically with car tech than any other tech. It has very deep pockets, but no track record in car technology.

Google's record may be patchy when it steps outside its comfort zone. But Apple, when you get right down to it, has really only added a couple of mobile devices and a single mobile OS to its repertoire.
As things stand, then, I reckon Google is far, far better placed to do well in cars. It'll be fun finding out if I'm right.

Apple CarPlay Explained


Apple's solution: Because the lifespan of a car is so long compared to the lifecycle of digital technologies like phones and the software they run, the challenge is to create a smart in-car infotainment system that can stay up to date even as your car ages.

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