The Grand Poobahs of both the automotive and tech sectors assembled in Las Vegas this past January at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) to divine how the automobile will be transformed into the world’s largest mobile device.
And, as strange as it may sound, the connected car could be the salvation for BlackBerry, the beleaguered Canadian telecommunications company.
Among those making presentations was Grant Courville, director of product management at QNX, the Ottawa-based BlackBerry subsidiary that produces arguably the world’s most secure operating system and which dominates in delivering in-car infotainment. QNX is possibly the most powerful tech company in Canada that flies almost entirely under the radar. Its role will likely expand exponentially as major tech titans like Apple, Google/Android, Microsoft and others unspool their strategies for connecting mobile devices to the automobile.
For Courville, it is not a matter of if, but when this will happen. “People want consumer apps in their cars; they want to connect their smartphones; they want to connect to the cloud,” he says. And, as it stands, he doesn’t believe there is “a dominant app eco-system in automotive.”
So who stands to win big in the connected car sweepstakes? This will likely be the year that the high-tech titans – Google, Apple, Microsoft, et al – battle for control of the connected market. Many industry insiders see the struggle pivoting on the key issue of whose technology can best deliver the data that drivers seemingly crave.
“It’s all about getting data in and out of the automobile, securely, safely, reliably,” says Tim Tang, an analyst at IDC Consulting in Toronto.
Google fired the volley at CES when it launched the Open Automotive Alliance (OPA), a partnership with leading car makers like GM, Audi, Honda and Hyundai that will see its Android devices being connected to cars as early as later this year. OPA trumpeted that “it is dedicated to a common platform that will drive innovation and make technology in the car safer and more intuitive for everyone.”
Hold your horses, responded Apple. Two months later at the Geneva International Motor Show, it launched CarPlay, which the tech giant expects will become the preferred in-car infotainment option in the same way its iPhones and iPads muscled out the competition in their respective markets.
Apple has a leg-up because of the hard-to-trump functionality of its technology. Its iOS7 operating system integrates such iPhone features as maps, music and messaging to the in-car display and its Siri voice-recognition technology permits hands-free interaction with the infotainment system. Still, it may not be so easy to knock out the competition this time. CarPlay employs Apple’s Lightning connector, and it’s only compatible with iPhone5, 5G and 5C. Still, some of the world’s most prestigious car makers – Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo – have announced they will be outfitting their new cars with CarPlay in late 2014.
But are both Apple and Google getting ahead of themselves? For Tang, there are two scenarios to deliver data to the dashboard. “One is to piggyback on the smartphone, which is what Apple, Google and others are pitching,” he says. “The other would be to give each individual car a dedicated connection so car makers, and consumers, can exert more control over the data that is being collected and shared.” He doesn’t believe auto makers have necessarily decided on the best going-forward plan.
One thing is clear, however: whatever strategy prevails, QNX stands to benefit. First, because as Courville says, its embedded automotive operating system is compatible with Apple, Android, etc., if piggybacking on the smartphone becomes the preferred strategy. “We are absolutely delighted if drivers want to connect their Apple devices, or their Android devices to the car because it’s our technology that allows them to interact with the head unit,” he says.
But Courville also says drivers will still want infotainment functionality on their headsets even if they are not connecting mobile devices to their cars. “They still want to listen to music, get navigation advice, lock, or unlock their cars remotely, do lots of other stuff remotely, etc. They will still want their cars to be smart and connected and we do all the hard stuff – the plumbing – to make sure all these systems work securely, reliably and all the time.”
So will BlackBerry’s QNX be the big winner in the evolution of the smart connected car? Will its QNX Car Platform be the brain behind the world’s largest mobile device?
“We are the market leaders now, and I don’t see that changing at all,” says Courville. “Our business is booming.”