Lost in the fanfare of the iPhone 4's debut (and the concurrent release of Apple's OS 4.0 software for that device, as well as for the iPhone 3G and 3GS) was an OS 4.0 feature called iPod Out, which sends an iPod's familiar graphic user interface (GUI) to an outboard screen. iPod Out didn't escape the notice of automotive electronics designers, however. BMW was quick to announce that its vehicles will support the feature by early 2011. (The feature is previewed in this YouTube video.)
This may not seem so groundbreaking at first glance. But it is when you consider that an automaker — especially one such as BMW, which prides itself on innovation and cutting-edge technology — has ceded part of its in-car user interface (UI) to an outside company. A lot of OEMs are hesitant to hand over to device makers like Apple something as important as the in-car branding experience and the "carefully crafted on-screen interface," said Roger C. Lanctot, an analyst with Strategy Analytics.
But it sounds like an ideal solution for automakers. Leveraging the iPod's GUI ostensibly makes it easier for drivers to access music on an iPhone. "I think it is a shrewd move by BMW," commented Mark Boyadis, an analyst with iSuppli. "If you have the iPod GUI that you're used to on the screen of your head unit, that's a pretty good plus." An added bonus is that if Apple changes the GUI on later devices, it will be instantly updated in any BMW that supports iPod Out, alleviating for both carmakers and consumers the disadvantage of having outdated infotainment software.
Smartphones Steer Development
The new iPod Out feature isn't a BMW exclusive, but rather an Apple spec that any automaker can adopt. But iPod Out is only good for playing music; it does not apply to the phone, contacts, calendars or apps. Tech-savvy car buyers are used to having all of these features at their fingertips, and if one automaker doesn't offer a vehicle that lets them stay connected in the car, they'll opt for a model that does — or, worse, they'll unsafely use their device while driving.
And that's why automakers are frantically trying to figure out how to incorporate smartphones and related devices into cars and, of course, do it safely. "Carmakers are really caught in a bind right now because they would love to sell a display in the car and offer navigation and all kinds of content: audio, weather, fuel pricing, stock prices," Lanctot said. "Carmakers and suppliers have to find a way to welcome these devices in the car in a safe manner...that preserves their branding experience."
Providing an easier way to allow drivers to access music on a portable device is one thing, but providing access to a smartphone's other features and the distractions they entail is quite another. "iPod Out is the first step in building the infrastructure between an infotainment system and the iPhone to eventually have applications rendered on the infotainment system and controlled by it," said Sachin Lawande, chief technology officer at Harman International, which worked with BMW and Apple to implement iPod Out.
According to Fran Dance, BMW's ConnectedDrive service manager, the company's implementation of iPod Out isn't an end point but rather a jumping-off point for further device integration. "iPod Out is just our first set of applications," he said. "It represents a continuous evolution of consumer-device integration in the car and the ability to upgrade and extend those functions. You'll see more functions coming."
This approach isn't limited to Apple devices. "We're taking on the other main smartphones — Android, BlackBerry and Nokia — and doing similar integration exercises with each one of them," Lawande said. "The technologies are not standardized and we have to invent ways we can get access to that information and transfer it from the device to the vehicle."
At the same time, the world's largest mobile phone manufacturer, Nokia, and an organization called Consumer Electronics for Automotive (CE4A) are pushing a smartphone integration standard called Terminal Mode. Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Volkswagen all have pledged support for Terminal Mode, as have some of the biggest OEM suppliers such as Harman and Continental. And like iPod Out, Terminal Mode brings the GUI of a portable device to a car's in-dash display. Unlike iPod Out, it's not tied to any particular brand.
Terminal Mode is being promoted to car manufacturers and device manufacturers as an open standard. "Terminal Mode goes beyond just access to music," said Floris Van De Klashorst, director of automotive for Nokia. "Key to success will be a seamless integration, which will enable the use of in-vehicle controls designed to be operated in a user-friendly way, combined with a dedicated car mode on the device."
But while Nokia is dominant worldwide, its market share in the U.S. is miniscule compared to device makers such as Apple and BlackBerry. And only German automakers are supporting Terminal Mode at this point. Terminal Mode is an ambitious undertaking, and such a standard is sorely needed. But getting all parties to sign on will be a struggle.
No matter how well integrated the smartphone, some feel that the devices are unsafe to use at any speed. "If things weren't difficult enough for carmakers, you've got significant forces trying to get all mobile devices out of the car entirely: the Department of Transportation, AAA, the National Safety Council, Oprah Winfrey," Lanctot said. "I think it's throwing the baby out with the bath water. I believe there are ways to use these devices to actually prevent distraction and enhance safe operation in the vehicle."
Systems like Ford's Sync have also proven that the effective, easy-to-use integration of portable electronics can be a big hit with consumers and help an automaker move metal. It has also provoked the ire of influential safety advocates. But in this always-connected age, it may be too late to get drivers to stop using their smartphones altogether.
"People want to access their phones while driving," said Harman's Lawande. "Our challenge is working with the phone makers to offer a viable alternative whereby you can do it in a safe manner."
Voice Activation vs. iPod Out
Ford also works with Apple and other portable device makers so that the automaker's Sync system works as seamlessly as possible. But the Blue Oval isn't planning on adopting an iPod Out-style interface anytime soon, particularly since Sync heavily relies on voice activation — and remains a brand-agnostic system.
"We have strong relationships with consumer electronics companies," said Jason Johnson, a user-interface design engineer with Ford. "I can understand the appeal of BMW's iPod Out because it allows them to develop features and functions for the market really quickly. The question that comes to mind is, what are the risks?" Johnson said that one aspect of Sync that allows the technology to "leapfrog over iPod Out" is voice activation. "All devices can be used equally through the same voice commands, whether it's an iPod or a USB jump drive," he said.
Walter Sullivan, senior product manager for Microsoft Windows Embedded — which helped Ford develop Sync and which has since signed deals with Kia and Fiat to provide similar technologies — conceded that there are benefits to BMW's approach. "You could probably navigate that easier than a user experience that a carmaker has created," he said.
But iPod Out is not made specifically for use while driving, he noted. "Terminal Mode has a similar problem: Does it make sense to present the same user experience you have on your portable device in the car?" he asked. "It may not translate into a car, where your interaction with that portable device really has to be a secondary task to driving the vehicle."
Sullivan sees voice activation as a better — and safer — way to access content on a portable device from behind the wheel. "Voice interaction allows you to select things from a large list," he added. For example, he said that if a driver wanted to hear a particular album, instead of navigating a hierarchical list, he could just say "Play," and request the album by name. "That's a pretty compelling way of doing that when you're driving a vehicle," Sullivan said. But he also acknowledged that voice activation doesn't work well for some people.
Hedging Their Bets
Automakers will have to choose which approach to smartphone integration they'll take. And car buyers will ultimately validate or veto that decision with their purchase dollars. Meanwhile, some suppliers are hedging their bets on which standards will prevail. One such supplier is Harman, and another is Continental, which is promoting its own smartphone integration solution, called Autolinq, as well as supporting Terminal Mode.
"There are technologies — whether it's Terminal Mode, iPod Out or a USB hard-wired connection — to deliver content [from portables] into the car," said Brian Droessler, vice president for infotainment and connectivity at Continental. "What we don't have, though, is one standard, but we see positive signs that we're getting closer.
"The reason you see us supporting and innovating around Autolinq and Terminal Mode is we help the OEMs make the decision regarding what they want to put into their vehicles and what they think their consumers will value," Droessler said.
Heading for the Clouds
Many predict that the next evolution for in-car infotainment will come via "cloud" computing. Music, navigation, video, communications and other content will be downloaded from a remote server, rather than being stored on a device in the car. We are already seeing the first signs of the trend, with services such as the Google Maps Navigation (Beta) app for Android smartphones and Pandora, which is available for a number of devices. Ford's Sync system delivers everything to drivers, from news and business listings to sports scores and horoscopes via a Bluetooth-connected phone.
Thilo Koslowski, an analyst with Gartner, points out that once much of the content is off-loaded from a handheld device to the cloud, user interface issues will become even more important — and a crucial differentiator among cars. "If I'm in my car and I want to access the cloud, the only thing that matters to me is to always have access to content and a great interface," he said.
Koslowski thinks car companies should look to user interfaces from an innovator like Apple for inspiration, and then adapt them to the limitations and requirements of the vehicle environment. "The reason the iPhone and iPod are so successful isn't because they're just another MP3 player or phone," he said. "It's because they made it so easy for consumers to access their content on their device," he said. If you want to offer a great content experience in the car, Koslowski said, you have to have a great human-machine interface.
iPod Out a Cop-Out?
But Koslowski also feels that iPod Out is a bit of a cop-out. "I like what BMW is doing," he said, "but simply replicating the interface is not relevant to when you're driving. I'm looking for something that adjusts to my driving needs and allows me to consume the content that I have on that device."
And he feels the same holds true for Terminal Mode. "Just replicating the screen of the mobile device can't be the solution," he said. "It shows that the industry is still behind with regards to where we need to take this."