Seattle’s OpenCar Wants to Bring ‘Long Tail’ of Apps Into Vehicles

As we all know, there’s an app for that, whatever it is. But chances are, it’s not available for your car.

So perhaps you stick with the one on your smartphone, furtively glancing down—dangerously, illegally—when you should be focused on driving.

OpenCar, a Seattle startup, has an audacious goal that could help solve that problem, while also opening up a vast new market for app developers. The company is creating common toolsets and a clearinghouse to link developers and automakers that could unlock the “long tail” of interesting apps for the car. The key challenge is integrating them safely and seamlessly with each car’s unique combination of sensors, screens, controls, and trim.

OpenCar founder and CEO Jeff Payne calls today’s cars “an imperfect consumer product proposition in many ways,” particularly when compared to smartphones. As he sees it, a smartphone is hardware and software that becomes significantly more valuable to its owner once it has been personalized with music, contacts, and, more importantly, apps to do a staggering array of things, touching almost every aspect of modern life.

The car, by contrast, is the product of “a heavy manufacturing discipline… that has been focused on safely and comfortably getting people around with good gas economy, but has not been focused on those sort of personal aspects of the product until very recently,” he says.

That is changing rapidly, of course, as consumers demand more of the connectivity and capabilities they carry with them in their pockets to be available behind the wheel, and automakers respond with an eye toward safety and maintaining control of their carefully cultivated brands.

Payne says this “tidal change” taking place within one of the largest and most important product categories in the world presents a range of opportunities for entrepreneurs with expertise in software, services, and mobile devices.

“Seattle is really an extraordinary technical community for this kind of a project,” he says.

Washington state has a significant but sometimes overlooked cluster of automotive IT and telematics companies, which enable information to be transmitted to and from vehicles. I count well over 20 companies with headquarters or significant operations in the state working in this industry. A report prepared last year for the state Commerce Department by the industry consulting firm P3 Group describes Washington as “a potential technology hub for the automotive industry” thanks to existing strengths in complementary fields such as software, mobile and telecommunications, data management, and aviation systems. The report says that the in-vehicle “infotainment” and telematics market will exceed $80 billion globally this year.

OpenCar aims to grab a piece of that market and enable others to do so, too. The company has been quietly working since spring 2011 and announced itself to the world last month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It has signed up Mazda as the first automaker to use its OpenCar Connect platform. Scores of app developers—many with automotive industry focus—expressed interest, Payne says.

OpenCar CEO Jeff Payne.

OpenCar CEO Jeff Payne.

The company’s approach is modeled in part on patterns Payne and his colleagues have observed in the evolution of other industries.

“It made sense to us that, given that open software platforms always seem to prevail in the end, we’ll just jump to the punch line on that,” he says.

At its heart, OpenCar Connect is a software platform designed to provide the capabilities developers need, and motivate them to build applications for it.

“There are very practical measures that you can take to reduce friction for [developers] as they’re trying to get their head around this entirely new product category called the car,” Payne says.

And, needless to say, cars are dramatically different from the consumer electronics devices most developers are building apps for today.

“They not only are just bubbling over with data when they’re moving—that is really intriguing for new categories of applications—but they have very strict requirements for the way that you interact with software in a car, because the cognitive load on a driver is heavy,” Payne says.

Many of these requirements fall under a broad category known as human-machine interaction, HMI, which is a major focus of automakers, who view it not only as an important aspect of safety, but also as an extension of their brands.

Individual automakers are already favoring certain high-level HMI models, Payne says. Ford, for example, has placed greater focus on voice interaction. (Ford led the industry with the introduction in 2007 of its Sync “infotainment” system, which relies on voice commands and is based on Windows Embedded Automotive software from Microsoft. The Redmond-based software giant anchors Washington’s automotive IT industry.) Other approaches focus on convenient placement of controls on the steering wheel.

Cadillac, for example, presents apps in its “CUE” system to the driver “in all of their glory,” Payne says, making use of touch screens and proximity sensors to create an experience familiar to tablet users.

“The new view of the freedom machine is inside the car,” he says. “We’re seeing a lot of advertising placing the driver in the power center. This is what’s selling the car, the dashboard with all of this command and control stuff.”

Not surprisingly, OpenCar hopes to play an important role in bringing the automotive IT reality up to speed with the marketing hype, at least when it comes to the development of a broad array of apps.

It starts with third-party developers, who, Payne argues, should be very excited about building apps for connected cars, but also face real barriers to entry.

In short, automakers are the gatekeepers of design and safety. That mindset extends to apps, which have to be seamlessly integrated into the car, and therefore are curated by the automakers themselves. Distracting on-screen movement has to be limited. The interaction model must be consistent across all apps in a given vehicle, including things like list ordering and information hierarchies. Styling and graphics should match other displays.

To that end, OpenCar is trying to create the conditions for developers to easily build apps that meet these specifications at a high level.

That’s important, because … Next Page »

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