So, why the Android ecosystem?
Perhaps the reason Apple and Android have both managed to maintain significant market share with their handheld devices is because they have different approaches, with different appeal. One of the biggest differences between Apple and Android products is that Apple designs and makes its own hardware, because the company wants to control every aspect of the user experience. This is attractive to people who want uniformity in their phones, tablets, computers and music players. Google, on the other hand, hasn't expressed interest in becoming an actual manufacturer of the devices, instead preferring to continually tweak and improve the backbone necessary for the device to run, which is then implemented on phones and tablets made by a variety of other manufacturers. This approach appeals to people who want more control and choice over their own phones -- or to those who find Apple's control-freak personality stifling.
The Open Handset Alliance was established in 2007 to help Google's partners collaborate on these goals (as they applied to smartphones) which helped propel the Android platform to its current status. Google hopes the Open Automotive Alliance will have the same success. If the alliance does succeed, this will be a new use for the Android platform; however, the automakers aren't necessarily starting from scratch -- based on Google's proven track record, car designers can be reasonably confident that Android will provide the safe and reliable technology that's necessary for a passenger vehicle.
Right now, cars' infotainment systems are all over the place. Some car manufacturers use Linux-based or BlackBerry-based operating systems. Others collaborate with computer companies for custom branded systems -- Ford's partnership with Microsoft for the MyFord Touch interface is a notable example. This is frustrating for companies who develop apps for these cars, because they have to be customized for each brand. The Genivi Alliance, formed in 2009, made attempts to integrate into cars using the Linux open source operating system. That alliance was backed mainly by BMW, General Motors and Intel. Though Android is based on Linux, Android has specific advantages because it's been proven to be adaptable to lots of devices made by a bunch of different manufacturers, and it's familiar to technology companies around the world, too. Since app developers are already intimate with Android, it'll cost automakers less to code and troubleshoot on a familiar platform. Also, some auto manufacturers, such as Toyota, Audi, BMW and Kia, already use Google to manage navigation, maps and other electronic features in their cars.
Google hopes that better integration will be safer for drivers and their passengers. A common platform, the alliance says, will improve safety because it'll be easier to use. There will be less of a learning curve between cars, and people will be more likely to actually use features like wireless and hands-free integration if the system is intuitive. Using Android to run some of the car's electronic features will basically turn the car itself into an Android device (or "ecosystem," if you prefer), reaching new customers and reinforcing the platform's importance with existing customers. When the technology is implemented, it'll be found in literally hundreds of millions of new cars [source: Vance]. In fact, we should begin to see Android-integrated cars by the end of this year.
This all points to the evolution of the car as a computer. We're heading in a direction in which a car's center console will be able to do a lot of the same things a computer or tablet can currently do. Yes, cars are already computer-driven, and have been for a long time. Computers control everything from mechanical functions, like engine timing, to comfort functions, like climate control. But that's quite different from the notion that a car itself should be able to, say, stream music videos, or search for recipes on Pinterest to compile and sync a grocery list. Clearly, though, plenty of car manufacturers and technology companies -- and certainly the OAA -- are preparing for that time to come.
Author's Note: How the Open Automotive Alliance Works
Not long before this story was assigned, Google bought Nest, the company that makes smart thermostats and smoke alarms. It was more than a wise investment in a company that makes innovative and desirable products. As we know from Google's relationship with smartphones, they don't really want to make devices. But they do want to control the way people interact with the devices, and study the way the data flows around. (That's not unique to Google, of course. I'm still too creeped out to activate the thumbprint security feature on my iPhone 5S.) Getting Android in cars, I suspect, is about more than making Android a bigger part of consumers' lives. We spend so much time in our cars -- it's reasonable to think that Google wants to know what we do with that time ... and offer Google-optimized ways to use it.
- Duffer, Robert. "Apple-Tesla partnership charged with speculation." Chicago Tribune. Feb. 19, 2014. (Feb. 19, 2014) http://www.chicagotribune.com/classified/automotive/chi-appletesla-partnership-charged-with-speculation-20140219,0,3095456.story
- Lomas, Natasha. "Google Announces Open Automotive Alliance to Drive Android Into Connected Cars." TechCrunch. Jan. 6, 2014. (Feb. 16, 2014) http://techcrunch.com/2014/01/06/oaa/
- Open Automotive Alliance. (Feb. 16, 2014) http://www.openautoalliance.net
- Reuters. "Apple looking at cars, medical devices for growth: report." Feb. 18, 2014. (Feb. 18, 2014) http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/18/us-apple-growth-idUSBREA1H19F20140218
- Vance, Ashlee. "Google Teams With GM, Honda and Audi to Bring Android to Cars." Bloomberg Businessweek. Jan. 6, 2014. (Feb. 16, 2014) http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-01-06/google-teams-with-gm-honda-and-audi-to-bring-android-to-cars