Android's Next Battlefield: The Automobile

Android's Next Battlefield: The Automobile

Open source wonder continues to outplay Apple, Microsoft

Android has conquered the smart phone and tablet markets handily, and though it's stumbled in the living room, Google is plotting to take over a new market in 2014: The automobile. The firm announced deals to bring Android-based automotive infotainment systems to Audi, GM (Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac), Honda and Hyundai vehicles starting this year.

The search giant is teaming up with those automakers as well as and Nvidia to form the Open Automotive Alliance (OAA), which it describes as "a global alliance aimed at accelerating auto innovation with an approach that offers openness, customization and scale." The name of this alliance and its mission statement are clearly similar to that of the Open Handset Alliance (OHA), which Google announced in 2007 as it pushed forward with Android and numerous hardware partners.

If this alliance is as successful as the OHA—and I do think it will be—then Google will have indeed sewn up one of the more important and lucrative markets for electronic entertainment, safety and information. (And who knows, they might get the living room right someday too.) There are currently over 1 billion automobiles in use around the world, to give you an idea of the market size.

To date, Apple's iOS has quietly dominated this market with virtually all automakers offering, as stock equipment or optionally, some form of iPod/iPhone integration in their vehicles, either via Bluetooth or proprietary cable connections. But in June 2013, the firm announced a more formal "iOS in the Car" program by which it would offer in-dash integration of iOS in vehicles, offering Siri-based voice control, integrated Apple Maps, and other features. It is partnering with Chevrolet, Ferrari, Honda, Hyundai, Jaguar, Kia, Mercedes, Nissan, and Volvo on the venture, and the first vehicles with iOS integration are expected this year.

Oddly, Microsoft has a longer history of working with the automotive market than either company, though its technologies are far less widely used. Ford has offered its Microsoft-based SYNC and SYNC with MyFord Touch systems for years, and last year Kia announced a similar system of its own. But these systems are proprietary to those manufacturers and cannot be used elsewhere. That said, Microsoft does describe its Windows Automotive technologies as "an automotive-grade open software platform" and also lists Fiat and Nissan as partners.

The Google entry, however, is formidable. And I expect automakers to race to adopt this platform for the same reason that handset and tablet makers did so previously: The core of Android is free and can be molded as needed for particular needs, and the total licensing costs of a complete in-car system will thus be cheaper than anything Microsoft or Apple offer. It creates a familiar platform for developers to embrace and extend. And it will extend the dominance of Android by offering unique lock-in features in which the car works better with Android-based handsets and tablets.

This kind of aggressive move makes me wonder whether the days of an expensive-to-license Windows are coming to a close. If Microsoft doesn't move quickly to address this alliance, it will find itself on the losing end of yet another important personal technology market.

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