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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.

The manufacturers, though, are already opening up their platforms cautiously. They've seen the power of the app marketplace, and they'd like to encourage the right kinds of interaction that they control. Cautious companies with easily explained services should be able to find common ground, but don't expect gonzo social apps -- say, a Yik Yak -- for cars that would allow drivers to insult each other while hurling down the road commanding the motion of two tons of metal apiece.

Networking is inconsistent
Many issues that developers will face in targeting automobiles for their apps might be easier to solve if the network was as quick as a good connection to a house, but that's not what mobile users get. The network connections are slower, more inconsistent, and full of jitter and lag.

Much of this is caused by geography. In dense cities, the cells are often overwhelmed by too many users. In the rural hinterlands, there are so few users that the companies don't even put up a tower. The amount of bandwidth available is rarely exactly right.

This is a challenge for developers because they can't rely on the same assumptions of constant connection. Desktop users are spoiled by features like automatic completion that rely on getting an answer from a central server in milliseconds. Developers could solve this problem by downloading the entire database to the car, but that would introduce a new issue: Keeping the car's downloaded local version up to date.

All this means that developers need to pretend they are back in the mid-1990s when the Internet was new and many people were still using a dial-up modem.

There may not be a human in the loop
The traditional model for cars and computers has a human at the center of the mechanism. All of the data flows to the human who makes all of the decisions. That will fade as robot drivers begin to catch on. While the ultimate goal of automobiles will still be to get some human from one place to another, the data won't always serve the humans directly.

Traffic information that flows directly to human drivers now will go to robot drivers in the future. The same goes for weather predictions, route changes, red-light patterns, and more. Even some of the ads could be aimed at robot drivers who might be configured to shop for the lowest prices on fuel.

The enterprise platform should anticipate these changes by designing the API to handle requests from both humans and algorithms. Then they can wrap a UI around the API feed to handle the user.

Search is more valuable
It's one thing to run the search engine that people use when they're at home sitting in an easy chair. It's another to run that same engine when people are in a car driving right by the convenient store, the restaurant, or the mall. The search box in the auto is that much closer to the point of sale, which means it's that much more valuable.


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