Telematics and operating systems: The ‘open’ versus ‘closed’ debate, part I

Deep inside the car, largely hidden from drivers’ eyes, a battle of operating systems rages. At stake is whether in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) remains a proprietary system controlled by a small number of companies or becomes an open ecosystem nurtured by an international developer community that contributes customizations and upgrades.

QNX Software Systems and Microsoft Corporation defend the proprietary approach, arguing that only tight reins on source code and in-house system upgrades guarantee high security and reliability. “The car makers don’t want the brand experience of having crashes, recalls, warranty issues,” says Andy Gryc, automotive product marketing manager for QNX.

In contrast, a growing coalition of open-source, Linux-reared enthusiasts are convinced that the industry must share source code for non-differentiating system components, such as sound and graphics frameworks or the Ethernet stack. This is essential, they argue, as operating systems grow in complexity and OEMs remain out of sync with the speed of consumer electronics life cycles. (For more on the ‘open’ versus ‘closed’ debate, see Telematics and app development: The advantages of open innovation and Telematics and the ‘built-in’ vs. ‘brought-in’ debate.)

Share the code, share the load

The typical car can have between 50 million and 100 million lines of code, compared to tens of thousands a decade ago. Hence the urgency to share the load, argue open-source proponents. “Who wants to write a USB driver or a Bluetooth stack?” asks Dan Cauchy, VP and general manager of the Automotive Business Unit at MontaVista, which specializes in embedded Linux commercialization. “Focus on HMIs, the user experience, the feel. That’s where the money and the time should be spent.” (For TU’s comprehensive coverage of HMIs, see Industry insight: Telematics and the human-machine interface.)

QNX and Microsoft continue to dominate the IVI space and have matched recent advances in embedded Linux for the automotive industry by becoming more inclusive of supported hardware and open to customers’ unique requirements. Previously, OEMs had to pay for more or less full software development every time they changed suppliers. With a broader array of supported hardware, they can migrate solutions without the need to substantially alter the code.

What’s more, having a number of working solutions in the market, they, unlike Linux backers, no longer have to prove themselves. Last year, QNX software shipped more than 60 percent of infotainment telematics systems worldwide. Microsoft, for its part, continues to have strong relationships with a number of lower-end car manufacturers, including KIA, Fiat and Ford.

Gathering momentum

Still, the open-source community is gathering momentum thanks to the GENIVI Alliance, which launched in 2009 with the goal of driving the broad adoption of an IVI open-source development platform by standardizing many common components. GENIVI has powerful backers in BMW and Intel, founding members of the alliance. (For more on GENIVI and innovation, see Will GENIVI speed up telematics development?)

Though slow to get off the ground, GENIVI’s membership almost doubled last year and today numbers more than 160 companies around the world, including ten OEMs. “If you had asked me 18, 24 months ago if GENIVI was going to make it, I would have said, ‘Well it’s 50:50.’ But we are past that now,” says Cauchy, who also serves as MontaVista’s representative on GENIVI’s board of directors. “People are now realizing, ‘OK, this thing is for real.’”

While the commercial launch of the first GENIVI-compliant IVI system is still some months away, MontaVista and Bosch built CUE, the much-lauded new infotainment system from Cadillac, on a version of Linux already approximating GENIVI’s specifications.

Adding to the momentum are Android-based infotainment systems being developed not only by the after-market specialists but also by Renault, which last December showcased R-LINK, a tablet-like infotainment system that will ship this year on its New Clio and the ZOE electric car. The device is expected to launch with around 50 apps and to be supported by an app store and a start-up incubator to focus on development of new mobility-related services. (For more on apps, see Industry insight: Telematics and apps.)

What is ‘open’ source, anyway?

The definition of openness, of course, depends on who you talk to. Many consider Ford’s SYNC infotainment system open despite running on the proprietary Windows Embedded Automotive platform, particularly when combined with the SYNC AppLink extension that gives consumers access to apps on their smartphones. (For more on smartphones, see The smartphone as a model for telematics HMIs, part I and The smartphone as a model for telematics HMIs, part II.)

The system is open because it follows an SDK- and API-based strategy, which allows third party developers to write apps for it, says Roger Lanctot, associate director for automotive multimedia and communications service with Strategy Analytics. In the same way, OnStar can be open despite running on QNX.

But purists argue that only Linux-based solutions that adhere to the code-sharing requirement for any changes or improvements are truly open. To them, even the Linux-based Android doesn’t make the cut, as its openness is managed and controlled by Google.

Not that it matters to consumers, anyway.

“All infotainment systems are moving toward what looks to the consumer like an open platform because they are enabling developers to develop [applications],” Lanctot says, “and/or they are enabling a connection to the consumer’s smartphone. So in many respects, the operating system is irrelevant and also openness is irrelevant.”

Whether you are using Android, Linux, Microsoft Windows CE or Windows Embedded, QNX, Lanctot argues, any one of them can be used to connect with just about anything else and to enable an open development platform.

Next week: Telematics and operating systems: The great ‘open’ versus ‘closed’ debate, part II

Jan Stojaspalis a regular contributor to TU.

For exclusive business analysis and insight on HMIs, download TU’s Automotive HMI Report 2013.

For more on proprietary systems and open innovation, see Industry insight: Telematics and apps and Industry insight: Telematics and the human-machine interface.

For more on HMIs, visit Content & Apps for Automotive Europe 2013 on June 18-19 in Munich.

For all the latest telematics trends, check out Insurance Telematics Europe 2013 on May 7-8 in London, Data Business for Connected Vehicles Japan 2013 on May 15-16 in Tokyo, Telematics Detroit 2013 on June 5-6, Insurance Telematics USA 2013 on September 4-5 in Chicago, Telematics Russia 2013 on September 9-10 in Moscow, Telematics LATAM 2013 in September in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Telematics Japan 2013 on October 8-10 in Tokyo and Telematics Munich 2013 on November 11-12.

For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports: In-Vehicle Smartphone Integration Report, Human Machine Interface Technologies and Smart Vehicle Technology: The Future of Insurance Telematics.

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