How to avoid an in-car format war

How to avoid an in-car format war

Some of us are old enough to remember the VHS versus Betamax war.

For the first time, consumers could watch movies at home using VCRs. But which format should they buy?

The Betamax format supposedly offered better quality; it was also more expensive.

VHS won … only to be made obsolete by DVDs.

We saw a similar market conflict between Blueray and HD-DVD; Blueray won that round.

These wars are not won by standards bodies, or by business development teams.

“In nearly every single case, it’s what the end users end up latching onto,” says Zac Johnson, product manager for Rovi Corporation, which provides solutions allowing consumer electronics manufacturers to provide digital entertainment across different devices.

The happy handshake

Will we see a similar format war when it comes to in-car applications?

Johnson sees the industry moving closer to the kind of standardization that will allow applications and content to follow us as we move from place to place, device to device.

For example, Rovi’s Connected Platform allows consumers to begin watching content on a DVR in one room and then pick up the program later from a different device in a different room.

“We’re hearing from end users that they’d like to enable the ability that, if your kid is watching a show and it’s time to go to the dentist, you just push the ‘transfer to car’ button,” he says.

For the digital hand-off to extend to a car’s embedded systems, though, the car needs to be connected to the Internet, either through an embedded head unit with a persistent connection or—what’s more likely for the next few years—via a smartphone connected to the cellular network.

Leveraging the phone

Standards and consistency are especially important for systems that use a smartphone to provide connectivity and even run applications.

This strategy allows in-car apps to keep pace with the mobile phone and consumer electronics industries, where new apps and services arrive in the marketplace every day.

It also helps automakers offer navigation and other services at a lower price point.

Says Paul Sykes, segment marketing manager for Renesas, “Every cell phone has a proprietary interface, but the standard set of protocols within Bluetooth or USB enables the car to access info from phone and vice versa. So these standards enable you to make a more universal solution.”

Terminal Mode, a proposed standard developed by Nokia and the Consumer Electronics for Automotive consortium, may become important for transferring video content to the car’s screens, says Brian Droessler, vice president of strategy and portfolio for Continental’s Infotainment & Connectivity Business Unit.

“This is a newer concept, and a couple of different implementations from Nokia and RealVNC go beyond applications to bring video content from a portable device to color screens in the vehicle.”
(For more on transferring content to the car, see ‘Three* Screen Strategy Highlighted at Telematics Detroit 2010’. For more from Brian Droessler, see ‘TU talks to Brian Droessler’.)

Open standards

Providing a standard way for the smartphone to interface with the car will continue to be important because of market factors, as well as technical issues, according to Steve West, vice president of emerging technology and media for Alcatel-Lucent and founding member of the ng Connect Program.

“Consumers don’t want to have a separate data account for the car,” says West.

“They want to buy the wireless package from the carrier that has the devices they want, so local connectivity via wifi or Bluetooth will still have a high degree of relevance. Certainly, integration between the wireless service and your car will be absolutely critical so you can do hands-free calling and voice-activated SMS messaging.”

The net effect of interface standards like Bluetooth, Terminal Mode, and USB will likely be a decrease in costs for manufacturers and consumers, says Droessler.

At the same time, he says, the ability to deliver new technology and services may up the price of in-car systems. But consumers have shown a willingness to pay more for them.

“Just because there’s a specification and a standard doesn’t mean things work right,” Droessler adds. “Even with a standard in place, we spend a fair amount of time doing independent testing of devices.”

Says Rovi’s Johnson, “As long as people are adhering to the standards, our technologies will be compatible. In theory, if everything keeps going the way it has, it will become easier.”

If you're intersted in this article, do take a look at our Content & Apps for Automtive USA show.

Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.

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