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Coding for cars: The next generation of mobile apps

Peter Wayner | April 6, 2015
Developers will need to rethink UIs, connection strategies, and how to capitalize on new data streams -- especially as autonomous cars start rolling off the lots.

speeding car highway road bridge lights traffic

For several decades, enterprise developers had to support one simple platform: computers on desks. Then the smartphone came along and we had to find ways to deliver the data to a smaller, more mobile rectangle. All of these challenges, however, prepare us little for the next big platform to come: the automobile.

General Motors has been one of the largest purveyors of computers for the past decade, as the average car comes equipped with dozens of chips running everything from the fuel injectors to the brakes. These machines, though powerful, have offered little connected to the outside world.

That's changing. Car manufacturers aren't blind to the fact that the next generation of car owners are more interested in a fast smartphone than a fancy car. The speed and sophistication of the Internet has made poking along in traffic more unbearable. And if cars are going to compete in the coming market, they'll need to give people access to their music, the news, and much more.

Supporting the automobile as a development platform will be a significant challenge. But with the likely incursion of robot drivers and autonomous cars to come, developing apps for cars may be our toughest task yet. While there are currently no autonomous cars for sale, Google and all the major car companies have demonstrated working prototypes that are tantalizing.

Delivering data to cars, autonomous or not, will take a whole new way of thinking. Rectangles will always be rectangles, but automobile network connections are spotty and the user interface needs to compete -- if that's the right word -- with the objects on the road for the right amount of attention from the driver.

Here are eight ways developers will need to rethink their app strategies when it comes to delivering apps for cars.

Auto companies think they own the platform
In the early days, companies like AOL or Microsoft tried to own their version of a tiny Internet, but the dream faded quickly as the real Internet exploded. The car companies are still in this early stage when they think they own the platform. They all have their own proprietary systems and make developers jump through hoops to enter them. It's not so easy to deliver an app to Ford, GM, and Daimler cars because, well, they have their own silos for data.

This problem will not change in the near term because these companies are not known for being entirely open. Third-party parts manufacturers had to sue long ago to maintain access to the platform. Today, there are two tiers of access to the OBD-II connection: Basic information is available through an open interface, but only those blessed by the manufacturer can use proprietary codes to access the onboard computer.


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